Moving beyond tea’s wellness message

The specialty tea movement has shifted the perception of tea. Image courtesy of Asheville Tea Company

Tea culture is continually evolving, and in turn, so is the motivation for consuming this beverage. On a broad scale, there are several exciting parallels between consumer consumption trends and the tea industry, such as clean labels, plant-based, wellness and customisation. However, there are challenges, including a decline in black tea purchases, poor out-of-home experiences and limited awareness about the incredible stories and experiences that tea has to offer. By Anne-Marie Hardie

Water is increasingly becoming the beverage of choice, particularly for millennials and Generation Z cohorts, who are consciously selecting healthier alternatives. “I think that the fact people are switching to water is an immense opportunity for the tea category,” said Shabnam Weber, president, Tea and Herbal Association of Canada, Toronto, Ontario. “What is tea, if not 99 percent of water: water that has been infused with so many health benefits. We are the original vitamin water — nature’s vitamin water.”

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome with converting water drinkers is the misconception that tea is dehydrating. Perpetuated by both the media and health authorities, this perception may be preventing consumers from turning towards tea to meet their hydration needs. “We need to make people aware that tea is just as hydrating as water,” said Dr Sharon Hall, chief executive, UK Tea and Infusions Association, London, England. “And when we extend the conversation towards the other benefits that tea offers including polyphenols and bone density, it makes a very powerful statement.”

By sharing this information, the tea industry can help influence consumers to adopt tea as their go-to hydration beverage. “Tea and water are inherently similar,” said Cindi Bigelow, president, and CEO, Bigelow Tea, Fairfield, Connecticut. “They are lighter, healthier, non-caloric beverages. There is a particularly nice correlation between iced tea and water, they both play nicely together.”

The ready to drink category presents an opportunity to engage consumers in premium tea offerings. This growth category is primed for sugar-free products that showcase a variety of whole leaf tea offerings including green, black, and oolong. “Water has enjoyed a lot of popularity due to its purity,” said Peter Goggi, president, Tea Association of the USA, New York, New York. “However, tea is making inroads. There is an extraordinarily strong, well documented, research background into the overall health and wellness of tea, which will help drive our industry forward.”

To gain momentum, the tea industry needs to focus on delivering offerings that will respond to the concerns of today’s consumer. In the ready to drink segment, packaging has become incredibly important with consumers opting for solutions that respond to their sustainability concerns. The anti-plastic movement is turning consumers away from plastic packaging and bottled water in general. At the same time, corporations, governments and public venues are taking a stand advocating for the elimination of single-serve plastic. “San Francisco has banned bottled water in the airports,” said Rona Tison, senior vice president, Ito En, San Francisco, California. “People are increasingly concerned about consuming clean food, beverages, and products. Tea fits into that lifestyle. It is a plant-based, clean, healthy beverage that they can feel good about consuming.”

Extending the Conversation

To ensure the long-term viability of the beverage, the tea conversation must go beyond hydration and wellness. “The landscape is continually changing, and to remain a part of the industry, you have to be able to adapt,” said Tison. This includes embracing a variety of formats and working in partnership with other tea companies to help transform the concept of tea into a valued experience.

“We need to turn infrequent tea drinkers to daily habitual tea drinkers — introducing new flavours to their repertoire,” said Alaina Ho, marketing manager, Stash Tea, Portland, Oregon. “Everyone in the industry has a role to play in helping make this shift. It may be one brand in the morning, a different brand in the evening, and an RTD in the afternoon.”

There remains a significant educational gap with mainstream consumers still largely unaware of the diversity that tea has to offer. “We need to talk about the goodness of tea on so many levels from the taste experience to how it aids in relaxation, mental clarity, and mindfulness,” said Tison. This conversation, although started, is still in its infancy. Consumers are actively seeking items that can be customised to their needs. However, the full potential of the tea experience still has not been fully embraced.

“Wellness will continue to be a driver in tea – it is an important message,” said Bigelow. “But there is much more to the tea conversation. In our case, we connect with our customers through both our family story and strong brand recognition.” For Bigelow Tea, this includes involving their sales and marketing team in all aspects of the business, from product development to the sourcing of ingredients. By understanding the entire process (and the motivation behind them), the sales and marketing team can develop authentic messages that showcase both the story of the company and its values.

“Millennials and Generation Z are very particular on how they spend their dollars –they want to know it’s going to something,” said Goggi. “Tea fits well in this conversation.” This includes inviting consumers into the world of tea, sharing its origin story, the variances that the terroir provides, and fostering connections with the individuals behind the tea leaves. “There is a strong sustainability message with tea: social, economic, and environmental, and when that’s paired with the wellness factor, it wraps up to a program that can help drive consumption.”

The specialty tea movement has helped to shift the perception of tea but there are still several hurdles to overcome. In order to get there, the industry needs to find ways to connect with today’s consumers. This includes understanding the terminology that they use, their values, and the barriers that may be preventing them from adopting tea into their lifestyle. “We are faced with several shifts in the industry: the volume of black tea is declining in the UK, consumers are calling a range of beverages tea, and they are not fully aware of all the benefits that Camellia sinensis offers,” said Hall. “The history of tea in the UK used to be so precious. We need to reconnect people to these stories.”

Black tea, in particular, has had its own set of challenges. This could be partially due to the beverage being unfairly pegged as a breakfast drink or the milk laden, sweetened, bitter beverage that was prepared by a grandmother. “We have seen steady and promising growth in specialty teas, herbals, etc, but black tea has been taken for granted and relegated to uninspiring words like ‘ordinary,’” said Weber. “We need to make black tea special again. It’s my go to tea, and there is nothing ordinary about it.”

The out-of-home experience presents an opportunity to help make this shift, but to do this, the overall experience needs to improve. This begins with inviting the restaurant industry into the tea conversation and showcasing the potential in a tea menu, including tea pairings, tea cocktails, and customised beverages. “There are so many parallels between tea and wine; the complexity, its taste profiles, traditions and history,” said Tison. “The story of tea runs so deep. It is something to be respected, celebrated and enjoyed in so many ways.”

Cafés have already fostered this development introducing consumers to tea lattes, specifically chai, matcha and turmeric, and the potential in cold brew iced tea. “The world continues to get smaller, and with that, we are seeing more exotic ingredients introduced into the tea world,” said Ho. “This new influx of flavours and ingredients presents an opportunity to delve into more exciting things, especially at the café level, where they can introduce the flavours in new drink experiences.”

Consumers are slowly awakening to the variety of experiences that tea offers. However, to truly propel the industry forward, the messages need to go beyond wellness and connect consumers to both tea’s diversity and its incredible stories. “We need to join up as a global tea industry and align our messages so that it will become amplified,” said Hall. “Creating global campaigns within the industry and fostering partnerships with other areas, like culinary, will help to elevate the concept of tea.”

  • 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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