Expanding tea-usage occasions

We New Yorkers like our seasons—yes, even winter. We embrace the cold and snow (as long as it’s not excessive, then we will complain) and the winter-related activities. Recently, Central Park held its annual ice sculpting festival and the snowstorm a couple of days prior (in which NYC received 8-10 inches) made for quite a picturesque ambiance. And as is ubiquitous on streets throughout the five boroughs, there were numerous food trucks present. The most popular food truck? The one promoting “100% Colombian Coffee.”

Colombia has done great job of branding itself and its coffee so much that the truck highlighted “100% Colombian Coffee” and “Authentic Colombian Coffee” over its brand name, Don Café. “Organic” was also prominently displayed. The truck offered several types of coffee: brewed, espresso, double espresso, latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mochaccino, etc, and hot chocolate. Despite the chilly weather, the truck was also offering cold brew coffee, iced coffee, frozen lattes, and even a cold brew latte. Prices ranged from USD $2.50 for a small black coffee to $4.99 for a large espresso-blended beverage like a mochaccino.

The truck also offered tea. Tea was mentioned on the menu board, but the varieties were not listed, just the prices; USD $1.50 for a small cup, up to $2.50 for a large cup. The brands were reputable – Twinings and Stash – but the bagged tea selection was that of one typically found in foodservice establishments—the standard “five” that includes Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Chamomile, green tea (jasmine scented) and fruit/herbal caffeine free tea (although some places carry mint tea rather than the fruit tea). There was also an iced tea offering. If any of the teas were organic or Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified, it was not promoted or even noticeable.

I waited a while near the truck to listen to customers’ orders and did not hear any for tea. Why is that? Did I not wait long enough to hear a tea order? Is bagged tea too difficult to drink outside during the winter while wearing gloves or mittens? Did none of the teas pair well with the assorted pastries? Or are tea brands not doing enough to promote tea as a good alternative to coffee or hot chocolate on a “cold day?”

I believe it is the latter. Tea marketers need to expand tea usage occasions among US drinkers. I’m singling out the US because at the North American Tea Conference in September, the International Tea Committee stated that getting consumers in North America—particularly millennials in the US—to drink one more cup of tea a day would help increase global tea consumption, which is currently being exceeded by tea production. Thus, US consumers need to be reminded of teas’ versatility as a beverage, as limited drinking occasions impede greater consumption by core drinkers. A report from market research firm, The Mintel Group, found that while only one in five consumers drink brewed teas in hot weather (RTD teas seem to enjoy greater versatility in both hot and cold temperatures), hot tea has been segmented as something consumed during an illness. Nearly one in five consumers indicate hot tea is only good when they are sick. This sentiment is driven by millennials, who are core consumers of teas and may benefit the most from seeing the category through new lens.

Millennials, more so than older generations, are seeking innovation and variety when it comes to tea offerings. They support transparency—they want to know more about origin, types of tea, tea garden names, and flavor descriptions. Tea shops and online vendors provide this to their customers, and many start-up companies addressing this desire are popping up in the marketplace. But this needs to happen in the primary retail channels where the majority of tea sales are generated—grocery stores, mass market retailers and convenience stores. The tea vendors that supply these channels need to improve or tea will continue to be challenged by consumer preferences for coffee at a variety of drinking occasions, whereby hindering tea consumption.

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