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Deciphering
the
Specialty Tea Consumer

By SUZANNE BROWN

My friend, Walt (not his real name), is a sweet iced tea fan. Whether it’s dining at a private club, or a quick stop at the drive-thru, his beverage order is always the same; sweet tea, really sweet, with no artificial sweetener or flavors, just sugar. He keeps an iced pitcher full of tea at home in his refrigerator. He enjoys sharing where he found the latest food bargains, including a box of 500 teabags for $2.00 at one of the wholesale clubs he frequents. This may be an exaggeration on amount of teabags and price, but you get the picture. He’s a dedicated Unilever Bestfoods, Tetley Group Ltd., Nestle and private label customer. Walt buys on price and isn’t interested in anything but orange pekoe so he is not going to purchase anything else. No need to spend any time trying to educate or convince him otherwise. I’ve tried.

There are, however, enthusiastic tea lovers who are loyal devotees and adventurous experimenters that are expanding the tea category so wide that the industry can’t keep up with whether it’s really tea in the beverage or some other ingredient.

Specialty or Fancy?
Interestingly, there is no definition anywhere of what specialty tea is. So, this is my perception. In my opinion, specialty tea can only be derived from the camellia sinesis bush. In comparing specialty tea with the very best coffees and wines, the same attributes and criteria apply. The same descriptions come to mind: terrior, rare, high grown, single estate or garden, or fine blends from the best regions either within or among other countries. Specialty greens, oolongs, blacks, yellows and whites are sold loose or in teabags. To process them any other way would be to delude their character. Too, the tea would be grown at high altitudes and process whereby it’s true to its character. Processing is key and provides the method by which a tea’s characteristics are developed to its fullest potential. Today, some of the rarest and most expensive are processed and formed into balls the size of pearls or large gumballs.

If a flavor is added, it’s natural such as jasmine with tiny bits of flowers. If it’s a blend, the finest are created by experts who have learned their trade as an artisan craft.

When asked her opinion of a good definition of specialty tea, Rona Tison, vice president of retail operations for Ito En responded, “ high quality, flavorful, exclusive and unique, estate or garden teas and house blends.” Ito En, which is headquartered in Japan, is the largest green tea company in the world. Its U.S. base is New York City, where it has a retail store and restaurant on the Upper East Side. Ito En carries a variety of single estate and garden teas, but also has created unique blends that incorporate different teas from different regions and countries. For example, Tison explained the company wanted a tea that was slightly smoky yet sweet and smooth so they created a blend of Keemun, Assam O.P. and Hazelnut. They also have a line of signature teas, which are green tea blends.

Adding to Tison’s description of specialty teas, Kuma Palani, owner/president, Kardoz Global Teas LLC, further defines them as “not mass produced.” Palani , whose company is based in Connecticut, is from a third generation tea family in Sri Lanka that produces high quality Ceylon teas. He also suggests these specialty teas are custom made for private sales, and offer less impurities compared to mass-market teas. As tea production becomes more advanced, Palani notes more progress toward higher quality production facilities with ISO certified manufacturing methods. Agreeing with Tison’s definition that these teas are rich, with unique flavors and aromas, Palani offers another characteristic; “positive unpredictability.” An oxymoron, but accurately describes teas’ unpredictability due to varying of season, climate and elevation. “Access to some of the finest specialty teas is limited due to limited production,” he continued, and are “fresher and purer if sourced carefully from the authorized direct sellers,” he said.

Fancy Teas
Daily, there are new teas on the market. For clarification, I will call them ‘fancy teas’. Some include popular names like Rooibus, Yerba Mate, Honeybush, any of the herbal tisanes, Bubble Tea and Chai. Then there’s the Ready-To-Drink (RTD) teas, which I also categorize as fancy teas. Organic teas may fall into any category…specialty, fancy, ready to drink. Decaffeinated teas are a category unto themselves, kind of like making certain you have salt and pepper in the pantry. Other fancy teas are juice and black tea mixtures, carbonated water and tea, and teas with additives such as vitamins, minerals, elixirs and artificial flavors.

In addition to these popular selections, Ito En also sells Lemon Verbena and Siberian Ginseng.

Additional fancy teas are extensions or versions of other popular beverages. Tea smoothies, Chai lattes and milk based tea beverages are all competing for share of stomach. Is there any room left for food?

International Developments
With all the new research and reports about the health benefits of tea, coupled with an entire beverage niche of both carbonated and non-carbonated drinks with green or black tea added, sales are growing worldwide. With so many tea introductions, new scientific reports, and other beverages called “teas,” there is all the more reason to strategize and plan for the right product positioning.

Global trends are innovative. Consuming countries such as the U.S. and Europe are importing tea, packaging it, and then exporting it. In Europe, for instance, Dietmar Scheffler, Halssen & Lyon, Hamburg, Germany reports the company’s most recent developments are the new Juicea (juice and tea), which is sweet fruit teas without sugar that possess a quality mouth feel. Launched in Rome last summer during the World Coffee & Tea Cup, Halssen & Lyon introduced the brand Juicea Feel Good, functional teas that combine taste and effect. Most of the trends Scheffler sees in the market place are in the area of tea and health, fitness drinks, functional food and drink.

Unlike the U.S., however, where the popularity of Rooibus ready-to-drink and other similar products continue to rollout on a daily basis, Scheffler said that many of the European bottlers have already dropped Rooibos RTD. The European recession has had an impact on tea as a quality ingredient in RTD’s ,as producers have begun economizing on raw materials, looking to substitute expensive ingredients with cheaper ones such as sugar.

In the UK, volumes of fruit and herbal teas increased by 50% between 1997 and 2002, according to Datamonitor, a research firm. In the same period, British consumption of normal teabags fell by 10%. Not to worry, however, the Brits are still the number two tea consumers, second to Turkey. Elsewhere in Europe, the U.S. preference for iced tea is catching on. Prepackaged iced tea sales are enjoying a sharp rise throughout Europe. Changes in consumption patterns indicate a more adventuresome tea consumer. Whether the changes are due to the newer, more exotic brews or marketing tea’s health benefits, there are also the cultural/lifestyle influences.

Trend trackers are observing a fusion of cultural influences. For instance, in Asia, Japan is re-discovering green tea, an integral part of that culture. With a revived and increased interest, Japan has been introducing new teabag concepts using new microfiber and nylon materials in triangle shapes as well as traditional. These sachets enable customers to see the tea and then make a buying decision.

Eastern culture is moving west as teashops based in Taiwan expand into U.S., Australia, Asian and Canadian markets. Ten Ren Tea Company, Taiwan’s leading tea retailer is becoming an international trendsetter and its goal is to teach Westerners how to appreciate tea’s flavor and medicinal powers.

Ito En, through its store, KAI, offers a menu that integrates tea leaves in signature dishes. Some of these include Salt Crust Cod with tea leaves and Matcha almonds. Customers are welcome to take part in the store’s Zen Tea and other special events that are scheduled on a regular basis.

How Do You, Then, Position Specialty Tea? Other Fancy Teas?
It’s not just the tea that needs to be positioned, but also a complete package including product, packaging, distribution and execution. Depending on market channel, a product has to tell its story in many ways. Small, specialty tea companies such as Rishi and Numi have an exotic ambience because their packaging, presentation and product execution look and feel special.

“Packaging is poetry,” says Richard Rosenfeld, whose company, Aspen International Trading of Aspen, CO, will be launching Dilmah tea in the U.S. next year. His objective in creating Dilmah’s packaging is to “say as much with as little as possible,” he said.

Containers say a lot about what’s inside. With its new line of RTD green teas called Teas’Tea, Ito En selected bottles with a flat front so that labels are easy and clear to read. Now, with main-stream supermarkets creating special aisles and displays for healthy foods and beverages, teas that are marketed as “natural” and “healthy” have a distinct position that is enhanced by labels that state the benefits of the beverage.

In its launch of a selection of organic teas, Davidson’s out of Sparks, Nevada has introduced new packages that include recyclable paper over-wrapped teabags in 25 county boxes as well as sampler sizes. Pastel shades of green and blue with the label displaying “100% organic” prominently tempt consumers to select from names such as Green Tea Garden, Imperial Green, Moroccan Mint, Decaffeinated Green, Jasmine Flower and White Peony.

Who is the audience? It’s not just the babyboomer looking for healthy tea elixirs, it’s tea for every age. That’s why companies like The Republic of Tea and Tazo have such extensive product lines. For tea shops and salons, it’s offering the accessories that go with the tea products and staying with a specific focus. If you’re having a Zen Tea event, all the products associated with this experience are part of the marketing package. To enhance and further define a products’ positioning, consider co-branding with an allied company such as china, or other business entities.

Finally, when it comes to specialty tea, education is vital. Whether it’s importing, blending or retailing, all up and down the chain, tea buyer need to know what’s in the bag. That’s one reason the new nylon/mesh or microfiber see-thru sachets will assist in that process. A rare tea with the name like “Dragonfly” or labeled with a regional name such as Dagombasalawa from Sri Lanka, isn’t going to convince consumers to buy unless it is seen, sampled and talked about.

Suzanne J. Brown can be reached at: Brown Marketing Communications, LLC, Atlanta, Georgia, Tel: (1)(404) 252-7399, E-mail: brownsuz@bellsouth.net.


Tea & Coffee - November/December, 2003
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