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Pumpkin Spice Lattes and the Power of Scarcity

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Pumpkin Spice Lattes and the Power of Scarcity

August 24, 2021, marked the earliest release (to date) of the Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks.

The arrival of a seasonal hot drink at a commercial coffee chain is the opposite of noteworthy. Every day, coffee shops around the world are brewing up countless new artisanal drinks. But since 2003, the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice Latte has been treated like an event. Love it or hate it, this drink has wormed its way into pop culture and has become a ubiquitous sign of fall. Though its popularity may have already peaked, 500 million sales should make us sit up and pay attention.1

After all, that’s what Starbucks was able to do with an ordinary, low-cost product — make everyone pay attention.

Marketing isn’t only about education: We know about lots of products that we don’t buy. Even if you have a compelling reason why you sell your product, your potential customers simply can’t care about everything. When something isn’t urgent, they’ll put it on the backburner.

That’s why they need to know why it matters right now.

Marketing is disruptive by nature. People are generally interested by the prospect of your disruption being something amazing or inspiring — something that could positively change the course of their day.

But if the disruption isn’t worth it, people feel annoyed. We all recognize (and have experienced ourselves) a certain numbness brought on by unsatisfying disruptions. This is another reason why consumers have become more cynical and dismissive in the marketplace.

So how do you break through and let your potential customers know that your disruption is worth it? How do you get them to stop and pay attention so that they can take advantage of what you have to offer?

Let the Facts Speak for Themselves

In order to draw the appropriate kind of attention, you need to communicate a warranted sense of urgency. This is a natural part of marketing. You don’t have to pretend that something is important when it’s not; instead, you can let the facts speak for themselves.

For instance, the life of a plastic bag is approximately 12 minutes.2

This is the statistic that compelled me to purchase reusable grocery bags. It had a certain “stickiness” — it was surprising and hard to forget. Notice that it’s not emotional or negative, just definitive. 

Once I heard it, each time I put my items into a brand new plastic bag at the grocery store checkout, I thought about how the bag’s only use would be to carry my groceries home, and then I would throw it away. (When I do use plastic bags now, I recycle them.)

No one wants to believe that the plastic they throw away will end up in the ocean, but it’s someone’s plastic — it’s as much mine or yours as anyone else’s. 

Learning the “lifespan” statistic about plastic bags did not make me feel manipulated. Instead, I felt a sense of urgency and a responsibility to be more aware of my use of plastic bags — and to try to change my habits, whether that meant recycling the bags I used, using fewer of them when I could, purchasing reusable bags, or all of the above. 

Part of discussing the problem with your potential customers is alerting them to the reality of their situation. You’re saying, “Here’s how it stands right now.” 

If the data and reasoning are compelling enough, people will implicitly feel the need to take action. You won’t have to strong-arm them into engaging.

Naturally Compelling Reasons for Urgency

So in defining why the problem and your solution matter right now, you can articulate a number of facts that naturally communicate urgency to the people you’re trying to reach.

This may include:

  • The extent of the problem itself. “Did you know that __% of [people / businesses] suffer from [this problem] every year and have to deal with [adverse consequences] as a result?”
  • The lack of other satisfying solutions to the problem. “This is the only product that will allow you to do [X and Y].”
  • The seasonality or limited availability of the solution. “This opportunity will not last forever — we have limited [quantities / availability for this product].” (Seasonality/scarcity is the key ingredient that makes the Pumpkin Spice Latte so appealing.)
  • The lack of awareness, understanding, or participation that would help the solution have more of an impact. “If more people knew about this product, we could help eliminate [the problem] for good. Every time someone purchases, the hope of [the problem’s] disappearance becomes more possible.”
  • The way things are happening in the world right now that are increasing the problem or creating a trend toward this particular solution. “More and more [people / businesses] are choosing [this solution] because of [a change in the nature of the problem / change in knowledge]. In a recent survey, __% of people said they would choose this [type of solution] over [old solution].”
  • The benefits of choosing the solution now versus later (what you can gain / avoid when you take action immediately instead of waiting to respond). “Saying ‘yes’ to [this solution] now means you can experience [these benefits]. You can always wait, but [the problem may get worse in these ways]. Taking action now prevents [unintended consequences].”
  • Identifying “how to know when it’s time” to take action. “Here’s how to know when it’s time to get [this solution]: [Bullet list of specific pain points identifying that the problem is extensive].”

Which of these feels most appropriate for your product?

Do you have a startling statistic that reveals the extent of the problem? (Remember, you don’t have to be overly emotional or morbid with your facts for them to be compelling. Think about informing. Help people aspire to more instead of making them feel obligated or forced to change.)

Do you have a solution that is only available at certain times of the year or in limited quantities?

Can you describe the kind of difference it makes when people choose the solution now versus waiting on it?

You may have more than one of these facts that communicate urgency; you may even have them all. Consider these options and what other important factors should be weighed when it comes to why your solution matters right now. 

Exercise: Why Does Your Solution Matter Right Now?

Write down every good reason that people should stop what they are doing and pay attention to the solution you offer.

If you feel shy about articulating your answer, think about this: You stand behind your product’s existence for a certain reason (we described that in your Why). If you don’t think it matters right now, neither will anyone else.

In a busy world, you must get the attention of your potential customers so that they can experience the benefits of your product. If you’ve developed your product in good faith, you won’t regret letting people know why your solution matters right now — and neither will they.

This is an edited excerpt from my book Mission, Market, Message: The Actionable Guide to Marketing for Small Business Owners, which you can purchase on Amazon.


1. Everything You Need to Know About Pumpkin Spice Marketing. AdAge. 

2. 10 Facts About Single-use Plastic Bags. Center for Biological Diversity. 


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