Candy cane lip balm, white chocolate chips; seasonal flavors let companies cash in on holidays

Lisa Hanock-Jasie turns into coffee fiend during the holidays, mainly because she loves the peppermint lattes.

"I love the warmth of the cup in my hand, the aroma just makes me feel happy and calm and good," said Hanock-Jasie, a 59-year-old resident of New York City. "It makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside."

Those kinds of emotions have turned the last few months of the year into a flavor derby, with companies putting ever-expanding variations of cinnamon, gingerbread and peppermint in everything from pumpkin pie ChapStick to peppermint Pringles.

It's not just snacks and drinks, either. Candles, lip balms and lotions let you literally bathe in holiday spirit — or at least smell like you did.

Consider the proliferation of pumpkin spice products, now as much a sign of fall as college football and the leaves turning color. According to the industry tracker Technomic, there were 199 pumpkin-flavored items at the country's 500 biggest restaurant and coffee chains this fall. That's up 58 percent from the 126 just two years ago.

Limited-time flavors are a proven way to attract customers throughout the year, of course; the McRib likely wouldn't have its mythical status if it were a fixture on McDonald's menu. But flavors like candy cane and gingerbread are particularly popular because of the power scents and flavors have to evoke time spent with loved ones.

"It's about the emotions it triggers," said Tawana Burnett, senior marketing director for ChapStick, which this year introduced a pumpkin pie flavor for the holidays, in addition to its candy cane variety.

Companies don't disclose exactly how much seasonal offerings drive sales, but the proliferation is an indicator of how indispensable they've become to stay competitive. For some shoppers, that peppermint mocha (don't forget the red cup) or gingerbread cake can become its own tradition.

Starbucks, for instance, planned to make its eggnog latte, which was introduced in 1986, available only in the Northwest this year. But after an outpouring of complaints by customers in other parts of the country, the coffee chain decided to make it available nationally.

A drawback of that kind of success is the imitation it invites. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has noted the popularity of the chain's Pumpkin Spice Latte since its introduction in 2003 has helped spawn a new category. Last year, even McDonald's joined the ranks of chains offering a pumpkin spice drink.

As such, companies are trying to stand out with new flavors or twists on traditional offerings.

This year, Starbucks introduced a Chestnut Praline latte, bringing its number of holiday drinks up to five — the most ever. IHOP is introducing Pumpkin Cheesecake and Caramel Bon Bon pancakes, as well as bringing back its Raspberry White Chocolate Chip pancakes.

Dunkin' Donuts is offering Sugar Cookie and Snickerdoodle Cookie lattes, in addition to Peppermint Mocha. John Costello, president of global marketing and innovation at Dunkin' Brands, said it's a way to keep the chain "top of mind during a hectic holiday season."

The need to come up with new flavors also speaks to the seemingly endless appetite for different tastes.

"It's an overall trend around the sophistication of palates. (People) are more accepting of different flavors and different flavor combinations," said Mark Miller, who heads the Pringles business at Kellogg.

It's why Pringles introduced three seasonal flavors in 2012, including White Chocolate Peppermint. They were so popular Pringles expanded to five flavors this year, including Milk Chocolate and Tortilla Cinnamon Sugar. The thought of such flavors on chips might make some gag, but Miller said they're meant in part to be a conversation piece.

"Especially around the holidays, consumers are expecting a whole lot of fun," he said.