Time for a new wellness conversation

Promoting tea as a healthy beverage is still a strong message, but the wellness conversation needs to evolve to further present opportunities for growth. By Anne-Marie Hardie

The relationship between tea and wellness is far from a new discovery. However, consumers’ drive to adopt a healthier, more natural lifestyle has provided the opportunity for the wellness message to expand. The result has been an explosion of functional/wellness products with the focus on the benefits of the tea or tisanes, instead of the tea itself. But has this growth been good for the industry? Or has the fad brought with it its own host of challenges?

“Consumers are always asking, ‘What will this tea do for me?’” said David O’Connor, co-founder, Genuine Tea, Toronto, Ontario. “I think we have to remind them that the original drink, which has been around for over 5000 years, has been and always will be healthy.” The functional conversation, although driving demand, has resulted in a disconnect from the tea itself. The challenge being how can the market respond to the functional needs of consumers while also sharing the story of tea?

This begins by understanding how today’s consumers are drinking tea. In Western culture, there has been an overall decline in black tea consumption, in particular, CTC format, with a rise in herbal and green teas. “The health positioning for black tea is weaker than herbal or green,” shared Matthew Barry, senior beverage analyst, Euromonitor International at the World Tea Expo, this past June. “Today’s consumers are seeking additional benefits from the teas and are looking for their functionality.” This new market has resulted in several functional tea categories including calming, beauty, digestive, circulation, mental acuity, energizing, detox and weight loss.

The growth of tea bars is also helping to increase the momentum of these functional beverages. These venues are making tea easily accessible and desirable, with their signature iced teas, boba teas and trendy lattes, including matcha, turmeric and beetroot powder.

At the same time, the continued growth of tea and yogi culture has helped propel the wellness relationship forward. “Yoga has had a huge influence on what consumers are putting into their bodies, including introducing consumers to ayurvedic medicine and eastern herbs including chaga, tulsi and moringa,” said O’Connor. The benefit of this connection is that it also helps return consumers to the meditative benefits of tea, urging them to sip and savour their beverage.

But is today’s market becoming saturated with over promises, with tea being seen as a panacea for all ailments and stressors? And if so, can this trend persist in the industry?

“Tea alone will not and can not cure any disease,” explained Maria Uspenski, founder and CEO, The Tea Spot, Louisville, Colorado. “However, adding tea to your lifestyle that includes stress management strategies and sound nutrition can provide a strong preventative strategy.”

The Tea Spot was very cautious about its approach to functional teas and instead tried to shift the conversation towards tea quality. “If consumers are looking towards tea for their wellness, then they need to understand the importance of quality products,” said Uspenski. However, the Tea Spot quickly discovered that there was a segment of consumers who were turning to tea for its functional benefits. Today, The Tea Spot has a functional line of tea that highlights several attributes including sleep aid, wellness, and immunity boosters.

That being said, Uspenski urged that it is important that the industry maintains control of this conversation, including helping consumers identify which products are truly beneficial. This includes providing consumers with high quality, whole leaf options, instead of the highly sugared, artificially flavoured products that may contain little or no tea. “It is up to us as the manufacturers to deliver these high-quality products, and not participate in the green washing,” said Uspenski.

The Downside to the Wellness Story

There is no question that the wellness trend has its downfalls. Although it is helping create a new market of tea consumers, the functional messages are focused on health instead of the tea. Consumers are turning towards these products for what it does, not what it tastes like, which can make it challenging to maintain the momentum. This shifts the conversation away from the tea story and the quality of the tea itself.

“Tea is really trying to push the third wave, but it’s being hijacked by the health and wellness conversation,” said O’Connor. A self-professed tea purist, O’Connor has struggled with the wellness fad and the consumers focus on what the tea can do, including actively seeking whatever the new trendy ingredient is, instead of appreciating the tea itself.

At the same time, Genuine Tea is keenly aware that cafés need to be conscious of their margins, which involves having products available that satisfy the mass market. “The trick is finding the balance between propelling the third wave of tea forward and responding to the needs of the mass market,” said O’Connor. “There is no reason why we can’t provide a high-quality Assam for a breakfast tea or a ceremonial grade of matcha to the mass market.” This has included evolving Genuine Tea’s business from tea supplier to becoming a beverage partner for the restaurant and hospitality industry, providing both an education and tea preparation training.

Shifting to a More Holistic Approach

When it came to wellness, Toronto-based Bad Dad Tea Inc took a slightly different approach. “We knew that laughing is healthy for us,” shared director, Stephen Mandel, “and so we thought, let’s produce a product that not only tastes good but makes them smile.” Science backs up the wellness principle of smiling, including being a stress reliever and boosting immune systems.

The company wanted to create an experiential tea bag that brings forward the social aspect of tea including sparking conversations and the magic of smiling being contagious. “Our tea is an ice breaker,” said Mandel.” It’s something you pull out and can have a bit of a laugh about it.”

The name of the company was inspired by the concept of bad dad jokes with the desire to create a product experience that would generate a chuckle, or in some cases, a bit of groan. With humour being the heart of the venture, the company began with an extensive database of tea puns with plans to venture into other forms of humour in the future.

“The concept will allow us to create truly personalized products in the future,” said Mandel. “It could be tea puns focused on the holidays, playful puns, or companies that want to match the tea with their brand values: honestea, integretea, creativitea, etc.”

Mandel delivers a set of tea puns to their designers who then return with an innovative cartoon. “I particularly like mediocritea and antigravitea, which is an upside-down teacup floating over the saucer,” he said. “Although the one that always disappears at the show is naughtea.”

In fact, the demand for the tea caricatures has resulted in a separate venture of tea merchandise with the favourite designs being added to tea towels, aprons, t-shirts and mugs. “The idea is to make you laugh,” said Mandel. “We are never going to put a lot of serious puns on our tea.”

Evolving the Wellness Messages

Focusing on the functional benefits of tea is a great way to draw consumers into the tea conversation. However, the industry needs to approach these with caution. First, most studies indicate that the benefits are often strongest when consumers drink between three to five cups a day. Although this message could be extremely beneficial for the industry (helping increase consumption levels), for the new adopters it could create a barrier of entry. “I think a message that consumers need to hear is that even one cup of tea is a good thing,” said Uspenski.

At the same time, there is a myth that black tea is unhealthy. This misconception not only negatively impacts black tea sales but could also deter new to tea consumers away from the category altogether. “The fact is that all teas, black, green, oolong, and white, have benefits,” said Uspenski. “The tea that is healthiest for you is the one that you love the most, and therefore drink.”

Adopting this type of message shift will help evolve the practice away from drinking tea like medicine, and instead, return to enjoying sipping and slowly savouring a cup. “The industry needs to feel good about presenting tea as a wellness product, as long as we continue to do this with care,” said Uspenski. “We have an opportunity to shift consumers away from a sugared or fatty beverage, to one that can help positively nudge the wellness story forward.”

Although the wellness conversation continues to present opportunities for growth, it should be approached with caution. Trends can fade, particularly for those consumers who are solely drinking the beverage for its functional benefits. To help alleviate these challenges, the industry needs to continue to focus on the tea story including its quality, history and culture.

  • Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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