The curious question of pumpkin spice lattes

I’ve been watching yet another meme pass around on Facebook, this time about the “hazardous chemicals” inside of a popular coffee brand’s pumpkin spice latte coffee drink. There have been opinions offered on all sides of the debate about whether X chemical is healthy or harmful, whether X ingredient is in the drink or not (and if it’s a retail product vs. an intended for home purchase or not).

Storyville Coffee

What astonishes me is this: very, very few people ever see either the article or commentary and say, “Well gosh, I can do better than that. I’ll make my own.” Pumpkin pie spice is as old as… well, pumpkin pie. Here, take a look at what constitutes pumpkin pie spices, based on about 5 minutes of Googling:

Dry Goods

  • 4 parts cinnamon
  • 3 parts ginger
  • 2 part nutmeg
  • 1 part allspice
  • 1 part cloves
  • 1/4 part salt

Wet Goods for something like a pumpkin spice latte

  • 4 parts honey

You’ll need high quality spices from the store or Amazon, especially if you have specific dietary needs. Mix the above ratios in as little or as much as you need. Because spices oxidize quickly, only make as much as you need at any given time, especially if you’re grinding your own spices. If you seal the dry goods in an airtight container, they’ll stay reasonably fresh for a couple of weeks. Your best bet is to mix the ratios of whole spices, bag those in little containers, and then grind on demand. Note that there is no pumpkin in it because it’s assumed you’d use pumpkin spice on pumpkins.

Now, bear in mind, I’m not a professional chef. I’m not even an amateur chef. I’m a marketer, a marketing technologist, a hacker (in the most ethical sense of the word). That means when I see something, the first question that leaps into my mind is, “How can I do that?” How can I reverse engineer it, figure out how it works, what makes it tick, and ideally, improve upon it?

If you find yourself saying, “How hard can that possibly be?” and wandering off to experiment with things, if you’re not afraid to fail frequently and spectacularly, then you have one of the most powerful traits of those who are successful in marketing:

You’re curious.

Curiosity is an incredible personality trait. It drives you to want to know more, to want to discover more, to seek out new ways of solving old problems and to understand as much as you can about what interests you. Curiosity is what transforms a marketer from average to awesome, because the more curious you are about your business and the industry you operate in, the more effective you will be at marketing what you do. Curiosity is what defines marketers and marketing technologists; we want to understand how something works so that we can make it better.

So whether it’s pumpkin spice memes, ice buckets, or whatever the issue of the day is, get curious! Explore, challenge, and expand your boundaries and knowledge. You, your career, and your company will be richer for it in so many ways.

Oh, and enjoy the pumpkin spice recipe.

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Formulaic marketing

One complaint often heard about marketing is that it’s too formulaic, that it’s too rote and lacks creativity. “Don’t you have something new?” is a common refrain asked of marketers like you and I. Our answer, too often, is to scramble to try and invent something new on the spot and usually not produce something better than the formula. Perhaps, in the words of Chen Stormstout, there is a better question: “is the formula working?”

Consider this: some of the bestselling authors on the planet, whose works are loved by millions, obey clear, unambiguous formulae. “Trashy romance novels” all follow the same boy meets girl formula. Even one of my favorite authors, the late and beloved Tom Clancy, had clear formulae for his books. The topics and subjects may have varied, but the underlying structure shared many common themes.

MarTech 2014 Boston Watercolors

Think about what you cook in the kitchen. A recipe is nothing more than a formula, a way of ensuring you get a consistent result each time you try to make a dish. Ultimately, the question isn’t whether or not you should be using a formula/recipe in the kitchen, but whether the recipe is any good. If it’s not, you work on it until the recipe is a good one.

Do the same with your marketing. Don’t invent things for the sake of invention – one of the greatest lies about innovation in today’s marketing. Rely on formulae that work, discard or improve formulae that don’t work, but don’t mindlessly throw away the process of systematizing your marketing because it feels uncreative. Be creative within your marketing recipes, be creative about improving them, but keep the recipes. It’s the only way to ensure consistency and scale.

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Emerging Trends in Marketing: Chasing Yield

This is the third in a series of posts on long-term things that will impact your marketing environment, from automation to macroeconomic trends. Keep these trends in mind as you craft your marketing strategy!

You’ve likely noticed that an awful lot of things are getting funded these days, from potato salad to apps that say Yo! Billions of dollars in investment are floating around. Why?


You don’t need to be an economist or a statistician to understand what direction this chart is headed. This is the 30 year Treasury bond rate, considered one of the safest investments you can make. Buying a 30 year bond today isn’t even going to beat top-line inflation. Here’s the Federal Funds rate, the rate at which banks borrow money from the US government:


If this were a medical patient, they’d be on their deathbed. Banks are effectively borrowing money nearly for free. That means a lot of surplus cash in the financial system, cash that needs a place to go.

If you’re a fund manager who has a portfolio with a nearly-guaranteed rate of return (such as someone who manages pension funds), you’re feeling a lot of pain. People will be withdrawing from the fund at a faster rate than you can replenish it via earnings from investments and interest. Thus, you go out and chase yield, or make speculative gambles all over the place in order to meet your obligations. If your pension fund promises X% annual return, then you need to take bigger risks than Treasuries or banks to make that return.

What does that mean for you as a marketer? It means there’s a lot of cash in the system at the moment, and thus a lot of highly speculative investments in anything that might even remotely look like a good return on investment. Lots of new marketing tools, social media tools, and advertising tools will receive millions of dollars in funding, even if they don’t necessarily have sound business practices. You’ll often see marketing companies touting recent investments made in them as a sign of confidence from the market. Because of the loose dollars floating around, that’s not necessarily a strong sign of confidence.

If you’re betting your company on one of these tools, make financial inquiries as part of your due diligence. Ask for the equivalent of a prospectus before you hand over all your analytics or social media to a company whose burn rate (the rate at which cash is expended) could put them out of business in a year or less.

On the other hand, if you’re a marketer with a great product idea, now is probably about as good as it’s going to get to start a company, build your product rapidly, and get funding. The well of cash will eventually dry up, so get funding while the funding is there.

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