Editor’s note: Jordan Hanson is marketing content manager at social media technology firm Infegy, Kansas City, Mo. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Brands can thank Starbucks for making pumpkin spice popular.” 

Starbucks has a secret weapon when it comes to brand awareness: seasonal beverages.

Pumpkin spice lattes (PSL) have become such a cultural phenomenon that they have even become a nostalgic symbol of fall right after cute boots, chili cook-offs and the back-to-school season.

Social media monitoring tools have some interesting benefits that help researchers and analysts turn unstructured, public conversations into actionable insights with far more value. These tools often use a feature called topic extraction used to pick out the subject of conversation in order to help brands look a little deeper at the topics people talk about most often.

Social media monitoring data shows a clear association between the PSL and changing seasons.

Looking at recent conversation data, for example, shows a number of call outs to fall and summer or people just generally talking about Starbucks' PSL in the context of their favorite season.

Long credited with popularizing the pumpkin spice flavor craze on a national scale, Starbucks' seasonal superiority has even spawned copycat efforts across the board at McDonalds' McCafé and Dunkin' Donuts.

Pumpkin-crazed consumers can now buy everything from pumpkin-flavored M&M's and Oreos to pre-bottled Starbucks-branded Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino to enjoy at home or during the morning commute, all without visiting an already-busy Starbucks location.

Starbucks' version of the PSL even has its own verified Twitter and Instagram accounts, for crying out loud. That's definitely a signal of strong seasonal brand awareness. (The accounts have 114,000 and 31,300 followers, respectively, for context.)

Their verified Twitter account claims that Starbucks' version of the PSL is "fall's official beverage." Social media monitoring data seems to suggest they are right.

What can we learn from Starbucks' seasonal flavor marketing? 

  1. Consumers exhibit a strong association between the launch of Starbucks' PSL and the shifting of seasons between summer and fall. (For context: references to favorite season, summer or fall also show up alongside mentions of pumpkin spice latte.)
  2. The ongoing reaction to PSL's seasonal availability every year tends to elevate Starbucks above its competitors in social conversation, a trend that generally ends when PSLs are no longer available. McDonald's shows up as a topic here but it's smaller than Starbucks is.
  3. Starbucks is increasingly likely to use PSL popularity as a springboard to launch new seasonal flavors. This study’s dashboard shows Chile Mocha starting to show up – another potential insight for brands might come from tracking the strength of this association with consumers over time.

These are all hypothetical insights I can test using social media data, all of which are ideas generated just from an initial look at a topic cloud.

For many seasonal coffee addicts, the decision between branded versions of the PSL is a combination of evaluating flavor, convenience and brand loyalty all at once.