Autumn, otherwise known as the long awaited Pumpkin Spice Latte season, is a nostalgic time of year. Whether the temperatures have cooled down or not (at least not in most of the U.S. right now), there are few things that signal fall like the smell of coffee infused with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, and a sweet hint of pumpkin. The marketing geniuses at Starbucks understand how to build hype. Beginning two weeks ago, the news media was all a buzz with the pending return of the beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte which three years ago received a refresh.
When the Pumpkin Spice Latte joined the Starbucks beverage lineup fifteen years ago, customers rated the unique beverage in the middle. They neither loved it nor hated it, but surveys revealed that people loved the experience of the warm beverage. They loved the idea of the warm beverage. Starbucks continued to work on the recipe since its initial release, adjusting the spice and sweetness trying to strike the right balance while allowing the coffee to take center stage.
After receiving feedback from customers and partners about their ingredients, Starbucks took a look at the ingredients used in the Pumpkin Spice Latte and started using real pumpkin puree and eliminated the caramel coloring. Prior to the launch of the the updated recipe in stores, Starbucks invited a focus group to taste test the refreshed drink. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Pumpkin Spice Latte tasted almost exactly the same which, according to Starbucks, was exactly the point. Peter Dukes, Director of Espresso and Brewed Coffee at Starbucks, said the goal was to make a “cleaner” version of the drink, not to reinvent it.
Higher education is facing criticisms and feedback from students, politicians, and the public. With the mounting scrutiny, it seems that comprehensive changes are needed across education. Sometimes; however, the most significant improvements are made from a few simple adjustments. Starbucks approached the feedback they received from a thoughtful perspective. They weren’t defensive. They listened to their customers, used data to understand the issues, and focused on the improvement needed to enhance their product.
Starbucks could have gathered up all the feedback and counted up the negative comments about the Pumpkin Spice Latte and made an executive decision to discontinue the drink, but they would not have been addressing the real issue. Consumers are gaining a better understanding of ingredients and want transparency and simplicity. Students and the public want the same from higher education. It is often easier to jump into a solution that does not really address the problem and this is where a solid outcomes assessment program allows institutions to operate more effectively and efficiently.
Outcomes assessment is often misunderstood and seen as a necessary evil for compliance; however, an integrated assessment plan provides a way to communicate consumer focus and promote institutional improvement. Starbucks not only released an updated recipe for the Pumpkin Spice Latte, but also provided a successful recipe for outcomes assessment.
PSL Outcomes Assessment Recipe
- Gathering Great Ingredients. Institutions need to deliver high-quality programs, support services, and consistent marketplace value. Starbucks discovered early that their consumers loved the Pumpkin Spice Latte experience, but the drink had room for improvement.
- Gauging the Feedback. Institutions need to actively seek various stakeholders’ input. Receiving less-than-glowing feedback is difficult, but it’s necessary to improve. Starbucks has been offering the Pumpkin Spice Latte for fifteen years and yet, there was still room for improvement. Starbucks had to analyze the feedback to understand the cause of the complaints. Not every comment requires an action, but they should be acknowledged.
- Gearing up for Change. Institutions need to conduct research to implement meaningful change. Changes should be a result of the institution examining their culture and operations. Changes should never be implemented solely based on conjecture. Starbucks narrowed down the issue to the ingredients. An increasingly health conscious world wants their coffee options to better align with their lifestyle. Starbucks also needed to consider its partners and costs associated with sourcing new ingredients.
- Getting Buy-In. Institutions need to proactively and clearly communicate the positive effects that result from the improvement. After Starbucks decided to improve the Pumpkin Spice Latte ingredients, they developed their marketing campaign. They communicated to its consumer base that their opinions were heard while delivering the same great experience PSL connoisseurs have come to expect. They were able to deliver the same experience while improving the inputs to deliver a better overall product.
- Going the Distance. Institutions need to understand that outcomes assessment promotes effectiveness and longevity, not compliance. Starbucks is a successful international company. No doubt, they could have kept their Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe the same and continued to build brand loyalty, but companies that thrive embrace a culture of continuous improvement. There is always room for improvement and consumer expectations demand it.
Institutions need to stand out in this environment cluttered with competition and noise. There are times when big change is needed and then, just like the subtle transition of summer to fall, simple adjustments can lead to great results. Outcomes assessment is about valuing students above trends and delivering consistency by improving quality.
“Pumpkin Spice Latte has become more than just a beverage, it has become a harbinger of the season.” ~ Peter Dukes
This autumn, what institutional improvements can students expect from you?