Expanding Tea’s Messaging and Occasion

The 10th Annual North American Tea Conference (NATC) took place this week in Miami, Florida, writes Vanessa Facenda. Organized by the Tea Association of the USA (the NATC organizer alternates each year between the US and the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada), the conference tackled a broad variety of topics – production issues, prices, labour problems, consumption, and sustainability, to name just a few. Overall, tea remains a dynamic category with a strong growth potential, but many of the presenters expressed a need to change tea’s messaging – “we all know tea is healthy, but what else…” – as well as expanding the occasion to drink tea because while production is increasing (it’s doubled in the last 20 years), exports are flat and consumption needs to increase.

Noting the export situation, Ian Gibbs, chairman of the International Tea Committee, in his presentation, explained that “part of problem is that there is heavy consumption in producing countries” so “we need to find new consuming markets.” However, he did highlight some surprising countries where tea consumption is dramatically increasing: Chile, Malaysia, Mauritania and Mexico.

Gibbs said that given tea’s healthy benefits, variety, quality, rich history and diversity of tea cultures, the potential to increase consumption is there, “there are huge marketing opportunities to be exploited.”

 Dr Sharon Hall, chief executive of the UK Tea & Infusions Association Ltd, gave an overview of the UK tea market including Brexit’s effect on the industry (but that’s a topic for another day). She said that despite some volume decline, black tea is still the largest sector (in tea bags) but herbals and botanicals/fruit tea sales are growing, and cold brew teas are also being well received. Dr Hall noted that more “high street” coffee shops are starting to offer more on-the-go tea options, although the experience is not always positive.

The opportunity to increase consumption in the UK is there as more “tea-focused” outlets selling premium teas are opening, and tapping into Gibbs’ point about “exploiting marketing opportunities,” Hall said these new outlets are creating tea events — tastings, talks, etc., to bring people into the store.

The UK Tea & Herbal Infusions Association conducted a tea survey in the UK, and to no surprise, with the exception of water, consumers think tea is the healthiest beverage. However, tea consumption is strongest only in the morning to lunch, but tales off in the afternoon and evening. Hall noted that in addition to finding ways to expand the occasion beyond the morning and mid-morning there is also “opportunity to target women and children.”

In her presentation, Louise Pollock, president of Pollock Communications, emphasized that [the tea industry] “needs to capitalize on tea’s trending attributes in order to benefit from the demand.” She expanded upon what both Gibbs and Dr Hall said about finding new opportunities, but specifically pointed to highlighting sustainability in tea’s messaging.

“There is an opportunity for tea to share backstory behind its production that will resonate with the target audience,” shared Pollock. She noted Moët & Chandon champagne, which developed an innovative graphic to tell a story about the champagne makers in the cellars and which now features the year of the new vintage in the handwriting of the wine maker on the label, as an example. “[This] visibility created an element of human connection between wine makers and consumers.” For tea, Pollock suggested including plantation worker profiles on each box of tea for a limited time during a key period.

Many coffee brands, particularly in the specialty sector, are using packaging to tell a producer story, but tea has not yet taken advantage of this. Given consumer – especially Gen Z and millennials – demand for transparency, traceability and authenticity, now is the perfect time for tea brands to expand their messaging and test new marketing strategies — telling a tea story on their packaging is a good start.


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