It's fall, which means all your favorite food products are magically transformed into nutmeg- and cinnamon-infused versions of themselves in celebration of all things pumpkin spice. Pumpkin spice breads, pancakes, cookies, yogurt, and even chewing gum are cropping up in grocery stores and getting plenty of social media attention.

Although everyone seems excited about pumpkin spice, is the general public actually buying into the autumn-based trend?

At first glance, the answer is yes.

As many as 68% of respondents of a Wall Street Journal survey intended to buy pumpkin spice products, such as pumpkin rolls, pumpkin oatmeal, and pumpkin-filled Oreos. That's good news for the brands that manufacture and market pumpkin spice-laced products as part of their autumn offerings.

The numbers look promising, but they can be deceptive: The WSJ survey was just that—a survey. We know that surveys can be heavily biased for various reasons, including pleasing the person taking the survey and even subjects answering aspirationally rather than truthfully.

The result can be skewed results, particularly when the question is framed loosely. "Would you be likely to buy this product?" is one thing, but "Did you actually purchase this product?" is another question entirely.

We set out to settle the score behind the pumpkin spice craze once and for all. Are Americans really buying into the hype?

Our findings might surprise you.

Actual pumpkin spice consumption is much lower than intent

You can probably understand why we were initially skeptical of the numbers gleaned from a pumpkin spice survey. After all, if 50-70% of Americans were actually purchasing pumpkin spice everything, the products would be fairly flying off the shelves. Therefore, we decided to use our library of analytic games to help us better frame the industry.

We used a game called Slice of Life, where users choose from two products (one of which they have the chance to win). When shown pictures of both a pumpkin spice product and a non-pumpkin spice product, most users opted for the original version. Choosing which product to win is a good indicator of which product a subject would choose to purchase in store, and, in regards to pumpkin spice products, only 41% went for the seasonal favorite. The other 59% would rather have an original flavor instead.

Contrast that to the findings from the WSJ-published survey. Remember that 70% of respondents said they planned to buy a pumpkin spice-related product.

Obviously, surveys alone are not enough to make accurate market predictions. Intent to purchase might tell you something about subject attitudes, but it does little to predict actual buying behavior.

The type of products matters

A survey of whether subjects are likely to purchase pumpkin spice products tells only part of the story. Our game-based research found that attitudes changed drastically depending on the type of product associated with the flavor.

We wanted to understand not only who purchases pumpkin spice products but also what products matter the most. So we turned to our game Name Dropper, a two-player game where one player chooses words to help the other player guess a particular item or product. The words chosen were a solid indicator of which types of products the subjects gravitated toward, particularly in the pumpkin spice realm.

We found that the genre of product definitely mattered: 15% of subjects associated pumpkin spice with dessert, but pumpkin spice was not associated with breakfast or lunch at all, proving that people are more likely to purchase dessert-related treats rather than spiced-up versions of their favorite meals.

Pie was an obvious factor as well: 37% of users associated the dessert with pumpkin spice. Lattes were another strong link, with 22% of players making the connection. Cookies and oatmeal, two assumed leaders of the pumpkin product spice pack, actually didn't fare well, with 3% and 2% association, respectively.

At the same time, attitudes toward a specific product was measured via Speed Stampede, and it appeared as though certain name-brand products were better off left alone. For example, some 42% of users would prefer original Oreos to its pumpkin spice counterparts.

Whether people are likely to buy a product with a specific ingredient is significant, to be sure. But it's not enough to tell a complete story. Had we not conducted further research, brands might mistakenly push a pumpkin spice lunch food when the general public prefers the flavor as a dessert.

Doing in-depth and nonbiased research through gaming could save brands from making a marketing misstep with seasonal products.

Most people like pumpkin spice only moderately

Anyone scrolling through Instagram might assume that the general public is obsessed with pumpkin spice. From images to hashtags and a bevy of products, pumpkin spice appears to be a craze. But our findings paint a much more moderate picture of pumpkin spice preference. In fact, the vast majority of people like pumpkin spice moderately but aren't obsessed with it.

Using Speed Stampede, we asked users to choose phrases to match certain images and products. For pumpkin spice lattes, answers were almost equally divided among "It's a bit of an acquired taste," "Delicious, yes?" and "Yum!"

Pumpkin spice gum was more polarizing: A small percentage answered, "Gross!" and the majority agreed it was an acquired taste. Only pumpkin spice Oreos received a majority of "Yum!" votes.

As for purchasing the products, our survey discussion-based game The Salon asked users—once and for all—which pumpkin spice products received their wallet share when such products were available.

As we suspected, only 6% brought the Oreos home from the grocery store, despite all the fanfare and intent; 5% opted for Chobani Pumpkin Spice Greek Yogurt; and less than 4% purchased the Pillsbury Pumpkin Rolls—the very same product that almost 70% of respondents in the WSJ survey expressed intent to purchase.

* * *

Pumpkin spice might seem innocuous, but it's a powerful cautionary tale for market researchers. Give unbiased data a more thorough look, and it's clear that selling pumpkin spice isn't exactly easy as pie.

Layers of attitudes, behaviors, and associations can affect a customer's decision when standing in the grocery store. Relying on verbal or online surveys alone offers up distorted (and, often, completely incorrect) data than can skew marketing strategy and result in a less-than-nice gap in research and analytics.

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The Unsweetened Truth About Pumpkin Spice... and the Gaps in Traditional Data

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image of Joe Benjamin

Joe Benjamin is the director of sales for Upfront Analytics, a market research company that gathers data through mobile games.

LinkedIn: Joe Benjamin