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Specialty Tea Trends

Consumers have been slow to realize the difference between premium tea and the standard tea bag's contents.
Better marketing questions are now being asked, especially by those who distribute their own brands or are executives of Multi-National Corporations whose holdings include elite growing regions. Almost all specialty tea is exported, and the globalization of intellectual property is poorly comprehended by many well-meaning owners of distinguished estates. However, look for guidance to the biggest multi-national corporation of all. Unilever’s Lipton is not usually classified as “specialty” tea, but this corporate giant has much talent to educate their specialty colleagues.

For my branding experiment, I went to the nearest supermarket and bought the basic Lipton 100-tea-bag cardboard box (beautifully bright yellow). Each and every teabag displays the ® mark six times, twice on both front and back of tea-bag overwrap, and twice on tea-tag attached to bag itself. Hence, 600 symbols that Lipton values its brand, reinforced with every cup consumed. This is merely the tea-bag, utilized for value-added profit.

Unilever is a master of blending for consistency year after year, whether as Lipton, Brooke Bond, Sir Thomas or other brands. Peter F. Goggi, president of Royal Estates and director of Lipton tea buying, knows what he is doing. Lipton markets their tea as value-added by showing IP protection. The exact same box carrying internally the 600 “hits” of IP designation also displays ® externally on five of the six sides. And, the © notice is also displayed. Does this product appear valuable? Yes, consumers assume it is worth protecting.

The Lipton product also communicates with consumers in verbal ways usually lacking in specialty tea. The box states, “To learn more about tea’s role in a healthy lifestyle, call 1-888-LiptonT (1-888-547-8998) or visit www.teaandhealth.com.” This is advertising on behalf of the entire tea trade, better promotion than any tea association or Tea Board could afford. The box also has a section called a “Caffeine Meter” and a section on “Tea & Antioxidants,” educating the consuming public. Lipton and Brooke Bond set the stage for the public finding more expensive, prestigious and “special” teas an appealing option. The Lipton box even has a diminutive denotation that the tea is kosher, an upscale market segment ready to spend more money for fine tea.

The trend toward teabagging specialty tea is slow, partially because of the assumption that the U.S. (and other) consumers cannot then visualize the tea, although Americans rarely look at their tea anyway. Some specialty companies have moved quickly to teabags, like Honest Tea. The entire Ready-to-Drink market for specialty tea already avoids the appearance-of-leaf issue, as the tea leaf is not present in the purchased product. Visual image is important to consumers, but mostly regarding the packaging, not the leaf. Honest Tea’s unprecedented growth indicates this reality, and they only use premium to superpremium tea, mainly organic.

Visual appearance of the brand is now more fully reaching into the consciousness of specialty executives. The more successful companies already master imagery. The Stash company’s upscale Yamamoto line, for example, has a Jasmine tea-bag in a foil overwrap of purple hue simultaneously deep and light, truly memorable. China Mist achieves good use of actual artwork, under its recently acquired Leaves Pure Teas, which they also carefully trademark. Leaves Pure Teas shows a lovely American Folk Art Series, with timely selection for brand image, via patriotic themed art owned by the American Folk Art Museum of New York.

The Leaves “breakfast tea” displays an antique American flag. Also eye-catching is the company’s rendition of Uncle Sam riding a bicycle, overwrapping 2.8 ounces of green tea with ginger. These are small tins in cylindrical or “canister” format. Both show © designation, trademark protection, Kosher emblem, “made in usa” and, on the bottom, “made in Japan” (referring to tin manufacture), plus a toll-free number and two web sites. The ingredients list is sophisticated and educational, “finest assam, tippy yunan, and rich keemum teas.” The Leaves Pure Teas square emblem is shown along with China Mist address and brewing instructions. All on a tin only 2.5 inches in diameter and 4 inches tall.

China Mist demonstrates control of imagery that promotes branding of a specialty tea. The Leaves line also has nice silvery 1-ounce sample pouches to entice new customers, for market share gain. The specialty producers can no longer afford to only grow fine tea, but must also focus on marketing matters far from farming, such as appearance of retail product and IP rights. The difficulty is cooperation with competitors from the same region, even when the cooperation benefits all.

In the New Global Order, the role of government toward business diminishes, and that of Multi-National Corporations (MNC) increases. Some MNC executives, paradoxically, find little profit in specialty tea relative to their overall bottom line, and they could shut down their specialty estates with minor financial consequence to their company. For now, these MNC officers seem willing to provide leadership, allocating disproportionately much of their time to these specialty areas that provide a tiny percent (sometimes zero) of their profits.

In general, the MNC executives remain ethically devoted to providing economic and community stability. Outside Darjeeling, few realize the largest holder in that top region is UK-headquartered Camellia plc. The objectivity of the MNC’s is tied to avoidance of family feuds and to the freedom of a total size that is not dependent on specialty tea. Specialty tea regions benefit from such guidance, especially in advertising, packaging and IP protection. Aggressive advertising and vigilant IP monitoring, at the regional level, must now begin. Let each estate owner make tea distinctively individual, while able to strategize in concert. An estate will be like an instrument, producing its best sound, but not as a solo act, rather as an orchestra, cooperatively producing an entire symphony out of individual notes. 7

Randy Altman has advised the United Nations and other transnational organizations, and has held directorships and officerships at various non-profit corporations. He also holds several adjunct academic appointments.

Tea & Coffee - April/May 2002

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