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Branding is tough to define. It took a pumpkin spice epiphany for me to finally put the concept into words.

Pumpkin spice Cheerios pumpkin spice branding Kettle Fire Creative

The new Cheerios contain real pumpkin puree, unlike the original Starbucks PSL.

One day I decided to write a blog about the pumpkin spice phenomenon. I spent hours researching the origins of pumpkin pie spice, the Starbucks success story, the national obsession, the growth from a fad to an industry, the decline of the real pumpkin industry (sad!), the ridiculous pumpkin-flavored products, and the marketing that made it all happen. I started writing that blog and came to an unfortunate realization. It’s all been written. All of it. Every word that could ever be spoken about pumpkin spice has been spoken. Sigh.

I was standing in our back yard, watching our puppy play in the leaves, and lamenting my fall-flavored sorrows to Josh when I had a revelation. Pumpkin spice is the definition of branding! 

Pumpkin spice Oreos pumpkin spice branding Kettle Fire Creative

Part of my childhood dies every time Oreo releases a new flavor. Abomination.

What is branding?

When you tell someone you run a branding firm, you inevitably get asked, ”What is branding, anyway? Like you make logos? Are you in marketing?” Depending on my mood I respond one of two ways. If I’m having a good hair day and think you’re actually interested in my response I’ll say, “Your brand is the message you send to your audience. It’s the visual and verbal expression of who you are.” More likely I’ll say, “Yeah we do logos and name companies and stuff,” or “It’s kind of like marketing.”

Let’s do some word association. I say, “pumpkin spice,” and you think…what? Fall. Orange. Latte. Starbucks. Obsession. Cinnamon. Leaves. Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie. Before long, you’re smiling as you remember the way your grandma made you eat everything on your plate before you could have a slice of her famous homemade pumpkin pie. Or you’re laughing to yourself as you think of that one friend who is obsessed with scarves and boots and waited in line for two hours to get her first PSL of the season.

This is branding!

Branding encompasses your entire experience with a company or product. It’s what you think of when you hear the name or see the logo. Branding is the message a company sends to its audience. In the case of pumpkin spice, the message is “Welcome to fall – the season of golden leaves, knitted caps, and cinnamon-spiked everything.”

Pumpkin spice oatmeal Quaker pumpkin spice branding Kettle Fire Creative

This one actually sounds good. Who doesn’t love cinnamon on their oatmeal?

The pumpkin spice experience

Hold up! You may be thinking, I hate the pumpkin spice madness! That’s part of branding, too. A company’s brand is based largely on their audience’s experience. If your experience with pumpkin spice has been negative or obnoxious, you’re not going to become a brand advocate. Likewise, if your experience with a company feels inconsistent, artificial, or confusing, you’re not going to continue to give them your business.

My experience with pumpkin spice has been positive but not obsessive. Last year, Josh and I hosted a pumpkin party and invited all our friends to bring fun autumn-themed treats. There was pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice salsa, pumpkin snaps with pumpkin cream cheese dip. It was orange and glorious. Josh and I spent that afternoon making pumpkin chocolate chip cookies from scratch, starting with a whole pumpkin! So, when I walk through Trader Joe’s and see their 70 different pumpkin-flavored products, I think of that party. And I smile.

Pumpkin spice butter pumpkin spice branding Kettle Fire Creative

The limited-time offer is a huge reason for pumpkin spice success – but butter?

This is the essence of brand. It’s the experience you remember when someone mentions that restaurant or grocery store or car maker. Can you picture their logo and hear their slogan? Would you instantly recognize their ads and billboards? Do you have as strong of an association with their brand as you do with pumpkin spice?!

Next time you order a pumpkin spice latte, cut into a pumpkin spice pancake, or give your pup a pumpkin spice doggie treat, think branding. Pumpkin spice = branding.

Pumpkin spice gum trident pumpkin spice branding Kettle Fire Creative

In case you want to breathe pumpkin spice without actually consuming it.

What crazy pumpkin products have you seen this season? How have they affected your experience with the pumpkin spice brand? Leave a note in the comments.

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