Public Relations and the Pumpkin Craze

Sara Guzzone

After sitting in traffic for the good part of last Sunday, I came home to a sad, nearly finished pumpkin candle. With its wick standing lamely at attention, I gave the candle one last sniff before throwing it in the trash. Yes, Thanksgiving is over, and pumpkin season has ended.

According to History.com, pumpkins are native to Central America and Mexico, but now grow on six continents. The ever popular pumpkin has also become native to many, many lines and brands of foods, desserts, beverages, beauty products and home goods (etc. etc. etc.). Yet each fall, few people stop squealing with joy over new pumpkin products long enough to think: Why has pumpkin exploded in popularity? Does this even smell or taste that good? How much money have I spent on this crazy seasonal favorite – I was one of these people, until now!

It has been 10 years since the advent of the Starbucks “PSL” (that’s pumpkin spiced latte for the acronym challenged ). From what seemed like a small following at first, over the last several years it seems that everyone has hopped on the pumpkin bandwagon.

First you have the Starbucks PSL impersonators, like Dunkin Donuts, which some people actually prefer. Then you have the excessive: my local Trader Joe’s exploded (understatement, I’ve never seen so many pumpkin products in my life – I was obviously thrilled) with pumpkin mania. I’m pretty sure every product that they carry came in a “pumpkin” version this fall.

Pumpkin has even tried a stint with practical use with products like pumpkin lotion (and why would you want to smell like a pumpkin?). I once got stopped at Syracuse airport security heading home for the holidays because my pumpkin lip gloss did not meet the allowed size for liquids, “Excuse me, sir, this was a gift." And fellas’, don’t just pin this on the ladies. I've definitely seen several dudes sipping a delicious pumpkin beer…next to their friend who is taking a shot of pumpkin vodka, followed by their cousin sipping on a pumpkin-tini.

This obsession has become a bit dangerous. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I ran to Bruegger’s after realizing that their pumpkin cream cheese would likely be off the shelves come Black Friday. My boyfriend even got flustered recently when – while trying to make some chili for football Sunday – I ran into the kitchen with a recipe involving pumpkin. I have to find some use for the seven cans of pumpkin in my cabinet.

I was surprised that more people have not stopped to analyze what it is about pumpkin that makes consumers go crazy. After all, pumpkin-flavored foods weren't always so popular when they first began (check out this post from TheAwl.com about an old episode of Sabrina making fun of pumpkin bagels back in 1999). Micheline Maynard wrote for Forbes this year that with the anniversary of the PSL, Starbucks has sold 200 million thus far. Her theory is that pumpkin’s seasonal appeal makes it so attractive – in other words, the rarer something is, the more we need it. Maynard also theorizes that perhaps something about the thought of “pumpkin” is especially relatable – it stirs up those warm, fuzzy feelings of home, family, friends and more.

From a public relations perspective, what can we learn from this? While every company offering a product or service wishes they could see into the future and predict the next pumpkin-like fad, there are some basic, key concepts that can be incorporated into any good communications strategy: when engaging any stakeholder, know who they are and what drives them -- offer content that is relevant, and in a manner that they can relate to.

Your public relations campaign doesn’t have to conjure up memories of Grandma making cookies, but with the right research and strong messaging, you’ll be far more successful than that latte flavor that didn't hit it off – turkey (kidding). And don’t worry – the little pumpkin candle was quickly replaced by “Holiday Plum”; I can’t live without something festive. Happy Holidays.

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