The Good Earth brand was founded in 1972 by a Santa Cruz-based herbal tea company that supplied tea to a local restaurant that expanded into a chain of 50 franchises. The brand experimented with herbal blends during its first two decades, producing more than 40 varieties. Tata Consumer Products acquired the company in 2005 and relocated its offices to New Jersey in 2011.
Caption: Sneha Balasubramaniam, Head of Marketing and Innovation at Tata Consumer Products
Authentic Brand Celebrates Successful Half Century
Sneha Balasubramaniam is head of marketing and innovation at Tata Consumer Products. She is a veteran brand manager who began her career as a marketing manager in Singapore with Tata Consulting Services. She worked for Accenture in Mumbai before rejoining Tata in brand management in 2014. Sneha was named head of marketing and innovation in November 2021.
Dan Bolton: Ninety percent of customers mention authenticity as an important factor in deciding which brands they like and support. Successful tea brands are clear about their core purpose, delivering on the promise of a fine product in engaging and sincere ways. Will you discuss how Good Earth has retained its consumer relevance over a 50-year span?
Sneha Balasubramaniam: Good Earth was born in California back in 1972 so it’s a legacy brand and just like California, it is bright, sunny, fun, flavorful, and wants to bring a smile to the end consumer.
We’re a brand that really believes in positivity and doing good. So that’s at the core of who we are and what we do and what we stand for.
Good Earth started off in a small store as an underdog company doing lots of different permutations and combinations with herbs, which then went on to being teas per se.
In Santa Cruz we happened on what has become a very famous and popular tea, which is the Sweet & Spicy bland. That tea is just unmatched in the eyes of tea consumers.
The tea drinking culture in the US is more than 70% iced tea and there is also a cultural association for drinking tea sweet. The US sweet tea phenomenon is pretty huge compared to anywhere else in the world.
Sweet & spicy had a natural sweetness without adding sugar or any other kind of sweetener to it. The perception of sweetness came from cinnamon. Cinnamon is such a beautiful ingredient because it gives you not only sweetness, but also a bit of spice that adds another dimension.
We hit upon something very beautiful there which addresses consumer needs. So from a product perspective, that’s what we’ve always taken pride in. And from a brand perspective Good Earth does everything with a with a bold flavor, and a bold note, and fun and positive note to it.
So that’s kind of what Good Earth is all about.
Dan: Will you describe how the brand’s core values influence formulations? What guides your sourcing in creating Good Earth blends?
Sneha: We source Rainforest Alliance Certified teas and ingredients and we’re also a founding member of the Ethical Tea Partnership. We have extensively tried to use 100%, natural flavors, nothing artificial. Even from a color perspective we don’t use anything artificial. If you look at the packaging we’ve got a range of sensory blends, which are biodegradable, and tea bags, they’ve got compostable pouches, recyclable cartons, so our commitment is genuinely embodied in sustainability because that no longer is just a jargon or a terminology. Consumers are very well aware of the need for being good to the planet and the environment and, and demonstrating that sustainable awareness in every purchase that they make.
If you talk about ingredients and flavors, you will see a lot of whole flavors. So the beauty and the aroma is not just taste wise, but also visually very appealing. That’s the entirety of the experience that the brand brings.
The other role the brand has started to play is that of democratizing these segments, making it more affordable to consumers. So that everyone can enjoy a good cup of tea and make a sustainable, eco-friendly purchase, and you don’t have break the bank. So let us be that brand that helps you make a conscious effort to benefit the planet, as well as giving you a good quality tea.
Dan: Good Earth has produced thousands of recipes over the years. Why did you relaunch lemongrass and black chai? Do you recall when these flavors were discontinued?
Sneha: I think it was early 2000s when, when it kind of disappeared. When Tata acquired Good Earth as a brand, we had, I think hundreds and perhaps thousands of blends, and I think as a way to optimize, we lost a few, some of the star performers along the way.
How we selected lemongrass is a funny story, actually. On Facebook, I happen to stumble upon a group, which was created by some really passionate consumers that were discussing internally, saying, ‘Hey, I used to love this good old Lemongrass Tea, I can’t seem to find it. Can someone tell me when I can find it?’
I was going through the thread of conversations and found that people have made a few recommendations if, you know, other brands and other ways of getting a similar flavor profile. And it hadn’t really pleased the consumer, and they were numerous. So I thought, wow, you know, we have consumers requesting something and looking out for something that we previously so beautifully did.
Since were were coming up on this 50th anniversary we said why not? Rather than introducing something exotic let’s bring back something that consumers really want and love and reward them with something they’ve been asking for.
We had both a lemongrass and a decaffeinated version, but given the trends and the demand for decaf being a little bit more, we said, let’s introduce the decaf. And we also decided to bring back a classic version of chai, just a simple version of chai.
So yes that’s the story behind the bar of consumers voice and how it actually inspired us to bring back something wonderful.
Dan: The world of chai has really expanded. It’s a brilliant cross over drink in coffee shops. It’s also a niche with a lot of variability. Will you talk about the black chai?
Sneha: I’m from India, so I have memories of mum making Chai at home, and it’s very customized as a beverage. Everyone has their own preference, some want a little bit more ginger, or a little bit more cardamom.
We’re introducing a balanced full-bodied Chai. One of the things we’ve realized in the US, is the need for bold flavors. Our consumers are are not fans of subtlety. When they drink a cup, they want enhanced flavor profiles.
The other thing we’ve noticed is the serving size in the US is little more liberal compared to the serving sizes in rest of the world. So when you have one tea bag, and add 12 ounces of water in a standard coffee mug it really dilutes the flavor profile. We’ve enhance that to mitigate that issue rather than having consumers change their habit and adapt to a smaller size serving. Since we know they’re going to have a coffee cup size of tea we’ve doubled our cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and clove flavors. So it’s a pretty robust tea.
We’ve also noticed the flavor of black tea sometimes really gets overridden. Black tea has a beautiful body to it and especially if you’re drinking chai, in the traditional way, with a dash of milk to it, you want that body.
Our tea buying and blending folks have done such a beautiful job in balancing all these different aspects as we bring back something from the past. And there are many types of chai on the market today but this one, I think, really enhances and lets you experience authentic chai flavor.
Dan: Tea consumption per capita in the US is far below many European, Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. Will you share your thoughts on how to increase consumption?
Sneha: That’s a brilliant question. It’s one that we stumbled over as a brand trying to cater to consumers in the US. There is no doubt the US is a coffee drinking country. We should wholeheartedly accept that. The coffee industry is worth close to $100 billion and tea is about about 1/10 of that. That speaks volumes as we face this issue.
Having said that, though, you have many younger beverage drinkers entering the tea and coffee world. We have an opportunity to attract the younger audience who will probably stay with us on the journey for another 20 to 30 years.
Coffee is a hurdle, it is the first choice of beverage when Americans wake up. Coffee is my first cup because I need that caffeine. Then I go on drinking tea and I enjoy it. But the first cup has to be coffee for me. Unfortunately that is the situation.
The second insight I can provide is that with tea it’s not about awareness as much as it is about educating consumers on how to consume and enjoy it. Just from the perspective of tea etiquette I’ve seen consumers add tea to a cup of cold water and microwave it. Not good. What’s happening is that people probably aren’t brewing tea the way it’s supposed to be brewed. This means they aren’t enjoying the beverage to its truest potential.
So I think that bit of education is needed now that you’ve got a new cohort getting into tea drinking to get them to do it right.
Retail must do the heavy lifting in realigning the marketing of Indian tea. While online transactions are more common now than in past years, neighborhood kirana stores are the most commonplace Indians purchase packaged tea, accounting for 70% of sales. Supermarkets are the fastest-growing sales channel for packaged teas. Only 7% of tea is sold at tea shops that specialize in loose-leaf offerings. Household penetration is 88% and even in rural areas 75% of households now purchase packaged tea, but on average only 22% of households report spending more than INRs200 per month on tea, according to the Tea Board of India.
Caption: In Delhi, Mittal Teas opened in 1954. Nikita Mittal serves a cup to her father Vikram.
Convincing Customers to Take that First Sip
By Aravinda Anantharaman
On the road between Siliguri and Darjeeling, a small tea stall would beckon visitors to stop for a break as they approach Margaret’s Hope Tea Estate. The estate ran the modest stall for years, the only convenient place for tea during the three-hour journey, says Atul Asthana, managing director Goodricke Group.
In 2016 Goodricke refurbished and rebuilt this stop to create Margaret’s Deck, a restaurant and tea lounge that overhangs the cliff and overlooks the valley. The tea lounge is now listed as the No. 1 restaurant in Kurseong on Trip Advisor. It is both a popular stop and a significant marketing asset that invites visitors to sample and savor the tea and purchase packets to take back with them.
Nothing sells tea better than sampling. The more people touch it and try – the more they buy. Goodricke opened more lounges, Queen’s Deck in Mumbai at the iconic Tea Board of India office, another one in Mirik, near their Thurbo Tea Estate, in Kolkata and Madhya Pradesh. The middle and north Indian belts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab are important markets for the group. In Kolkata, they have found their most discerning audience. Goodricke’s roasted Darjeeling tea remains the highest-selling brand in Kolkata, a city of 15 million.
Long a hub for the British East India Company, the site of tea auctions, and a port city, Kolkata is the tea capital of India. It is the largest city in the state of North Bengal (the same state as Darjeeling) and is adjacent to Assam. Darjeeling tea is the tea of choice for the Bengalis but Kolkata is a massive and mature market for tea. It is also one of the few cities where the diversity of India’s taste for tea is on display. Notable among the more than 100 leaf shops include Lakshimi Narayan Tea House, Tearaja, Dhruba Tea Centre, Sharda & Sons, Subodh Brothers, Star Tea, and the Karma Kettle.
In Delhi, Mittal Teas opened in 1954 to sell a range of teas and continues to be the store of choice for connoisseurs in the capital. Nikita Mittal, who has joined the family business, speaks of how access to tea can influence customer preferences, “Every walk-in is treated like a VIP, try to give them the best experience. And once they have tasted a good quality tea, whichever they choose black, white, green, chai, they don’t like going back to the average teas. So, that’s how we try and do it – one cup at a time.”
“There is a restaurant in Gurgaon which is associated with us,” says Nikita, “The F&B Manager takes each and every thing about his beverages so seriously. How he presents the tea, the teapot, the timer… he educates the customer that you have to take it out in three or four minutes and that if you over brew it will ruin the tea if you under brew you don’t get the flavor. Those experiences matter and people always remember something better, that when they’re having a good time, a tea or coffee really added to the experience.”
In 2008-09, Dhiraj Arora and Priti Sen Arora started Karma Kettle in Singapore, as a restaurant serving Anglo-Indian food. The tea menu was a big part of the restaurant and its experience. They had a ringside view of the explosion of the beverage market, as brands began to offer custom blending, pairing tea and food. It was an eye-opening experience, they say. Five years later, in 2011-12, the couple decided to return to India. At that time, India was waking up to green tea. Dhiraj’s family owns and runs Cochrane Place in Kurseong, a boutique hotel with Makaibari, Ambootia, and Castleton tea gardens as neighbors. Buyers from Europe who stayed at Cochrane Place introduced Dhiraj to blending botanicals with tea. All of these experiences led them to embark on their tea journey.
In 2013, Karma Kettle launched as a tea brand, starting with ten teas that included four blends. As a brand, it reflects the couple’s aspirations — vibrant, youthful, with a love for travel. Their teas were marketed as “voyages in a teacup.” The teas were named for favorite destinations or a mood. “We wanted to give identity to a blend; we wanted our teas to ignite a sense of wonder,” says Priti.
Part of their success is attributed to the fact that India was not only a liberalized market, but the urban Indian was now well-traveled and keen to seek experiences, whether here or abroad. “Experience” is a word that comes up often in the conversation on marketing tea. In 2016, Priti and Dhiraj opened the Karma Kettle tearoom in Kolkata as a space for people to gather. “Tea is about community,” they say, and they hosted guests for talks, tea tasting sessions, food, and tea sessions pre-pandemic.
Proving that access to teas need not be upscale is the story of the tea Vandis. In the Nilgiris, tea vandis or trucks were launched last year by INDCOSERVE, the government-run cooperative of small farmers and bought leaf factories – the largest in India. In an earlier interview with Tea-Biz, Supriya Sahu (IAS), CEO of INDCOSERVE, had said, “Our factories were making losses. They did not explore other avenues, newer markets. They were quite content within the space that was made available to them… The tea market is volatile; we were vulnerable. Therefore there was a need for us to kind of explore other avenues. Why not explore selling packaged teas, that can be displayed on the shelf. If you want to sell, you have to create a brand.”
Sahu launched the Indco Tea House at Kattabettu and Bedford in the Nilgiris, but the striking red trucks parked at popular tourist stops in the hills are what have caught public attention. They serve tea – INDCO’s brand of tea – and snacks. “Our dream is that we should be like Café Coffee Day chain or Starbucks. Why can’t we, a home grown outlet, be like that?” Sahu had asked. INDCOSERVE’s branding and tea vandis show how even small farmers can retail and find an audience.
Online vs. offline
But no matter what scale or legacy, whether they have a store or long history, everyone’s now online. Despite a robust brick and mortar presence, Mittal too expanded to the online space, adopting e-commerce as an avenue for tea sales.
The extensive proliferation of mobile phones, access to the internet, and the burgeoning of smartphones have had a definite impact on the Indian consumer. It has also meant that it’s no longer the urban Indian who is the end consumer but significantly includes those who live in smaller towns, who aspire to a different way of life, and who can access products as quickly as an urbanite. The opening of markets has impacted consumption patterns, and it has led to several small brands coming up without the need to invest heavily in marketing.
However, e-commerce is not just a platform for brands. Producers now find that they too can retail. Luxmi Tea is one of such brands that branched into digital with the pandemic. In an earlier interview, Rudra Chatterjee, managing director of Luxmi Tea, had said, “This was the first time that we sold tea directly to consumers. And the reaction is amazing because, after all as growers of tea, it’s great to hear from someone who’s drinking that tea at home. Also, for us to get feedback one week or two weeks after we produce the tea… questions on how to brew the tea, pictures of how they are drinking their tea … It’s been energizing for me and my colleagues who are growing the tea in the estate.”
Jagjeet Kandal, industry veteran and currently Country Head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, endorses it, “Producers are at the mercy of the market… If the market doesn’t pay them, what are you doing? You can’t keep blaming the market. As a businessman, you have to say, I will get out or change the business model. Every estate should put out 5-10% in packets.” It takes very little investment if one leverages online channels. If more producers did that, it could create the ripples of change because e-commerce and digital marketing have opened the tea market, as it did other FMCG products.
But there’s another side to this story. While starting digital, Karma Kettle soon opened a tearoom in Kolkata. Here lies another lesson: marketing tea is not exclusively choosing digital or offline but a blend of both.
Tea vs. blends
Karma Kettle does not own a tea garden. They see this as an advantage in the teas they bring their consumers. From tea farmers to suppliers of herbs and botanicals, they continue to service connoisseurs alongside those who seek flavored blends. Today, they have 100 tea blends.
The distinction in the market segment is essential. In Assam, Raj Barooah, after entering his family’s tea business, was attracted to the idea of retailing. He eventually started Rujani Tea, a specialty tea brand. In a blog post, he writes that 1999 and 2006 were the worst period for the tea industry in nearly a century. “Prices fell, productivity was low, and demand for CTC teas in the Indian market plunged. It was very, very difficult to keep going.”
From 2007 onwards, Barooah pursued the commodity trade, increasing his factory’s capacity. “But there was no joy in it for me. It brought back the old dream of doing something different, of creating a brand.” Traveling to China changed how he viewed the tea trade and his views on selling directly to consumers. Raj launched Rujani, named for his two daughters, as a brand that would represent the best whole leaf teas made at Aideobarie. Raj attempted to break the mold, assuming that Assam teas are CTC teas.
The pandemic certainly changed how producers and brands view the domestic market. In 2020, the lockdown was announced just as north India geared to harvest its first flush. Closing borders, stores, and hospitality meant that consumers turned online. And producers and brands took steps to meet them here.
Celestè was born during the pandemic, started by Anubha Jawar, who grew up amid tea in Siliguri. Celeste’s blends are their USP, with ingredients chosen to make them palatable to the Indian consumer. Here too, there is a focus on the experience. Celestè teas come in lovely packaging, but Anubha quickly points out that packaging is only part of the experience.
She would instead focus on conscious consumption, whether in the material used to package the teas, the tea bags, or the quality of ingredients used.
Celestè, like Karma Kettle, has succeeded in making tea appealing to a younger market by being a vibrant brand, more invested in flavors rather than tea’s snob value. Because that’s the other problem, Indian marketers will have to address — creating a new market for tea among India’s youth, something that coffee has succeeded in and will be hard to replace.
Coffee’s success in India is credited to Cafè Coffee Day (CCD), a brand started by Chikmagalur coffee planter Siddhartha VG. Back in the late 90s, he set up “cyber cafes,” which were spaces where one could buy coffee and surf the internet. The personal computer and the internet had not increased in homes yet, so this was a huge success. CCD became a chosen hangout spot for the young and continues to be a popular option 20 years later, despite the arrival of Starbucks. Jagjeet points out another learning from coffee. “See what coffee did,” he says. “They never boast of the amount of coffee they sold, they boast of tastes… this how they become icons. They are selling on experience.”
Chaayos and Chai Point are brands that constructed hundreds of outlets across the country, offering a range of teas and snacks. The audience for these are office goers who need a quick bite and want a reasonably good cup of chai. Both brands also offer chai in takeaway flasks that preserve the heat. A quick look at the menu points to what Indian consumers want — chai and green tea.
The newest brand to enter the fray is Teas from India, launched in December 2021 by Amalgamated Plantations Limited. “Our journey with tea is intertwined with the history of tea in India. With our 150 + years of experience and expertise, no one is better placed to unleash tea’s potential by bringing the best from bush to cup. Combining tradition and innovation to put quality first, our vision is to grow profitably and sustainably by serving as the industry pioneer of tea in India. In doing so, we wish to contribute and be present in the entire value chain of tea,” says Vikram Gulia, Managing Director at APPL.
APPL already had popular brands, some named for its estates, like Hattigor, which caters to the suburban and rural heartland and northern markets, and Majuli Mist; a roasted tea made for the West Bengal market. APPL launched Teas from India, targeting the millennial shopper looking for exclusivity and willing to pay the price for it.
Teas from India was chosen as the name to represent APPL’s legacy and the significant search engine advantages it offers, which is helpful as it is marketed more heavily on digital platforms rather than offline channels. The brand’s raison d’être is to showcase the diversity of India’s tea regions by acknowledging them, whether Darjeeling and Assam or the Nilgiris and Dooars and even Himachal and Sikkim. And taking cognizance of consumer preference, they offer a range of blends.
In the past regional preferences could be addressed by packaging various grades. Product diversification is more complex today, leading producers to keep up with trends — seen with the proliferation of butterfly pea flower tisane, turmeric blends, and, more recently, immunity teas.
The pandemic jumpstarted the category of immunity teas, and nearly every brand quickly added it to their portfolio, catering to a health-conscious Indian segment.
Green tea and chai
Green tea has risen in popularity in the last ten years; although it has been around for longer, it was made for an export base. Its marketing has been one of the recent successes tea has enjoyed, and the marketing narrative has hinged on its supposed properties to detox and help its drinkers enjoy wellness. Both Tata Consumer Products and Hindustan Unilever led the green tea marketing with TVCs, ads, and young Bollywood actors as ambassadors, emphasizing the influence mass media and big brands have in shaping consumer preferences.
But this has not been leveraged in creating a market for Assam orthodox tea. Ajay Jalan of Mokalbari Tea Estate and Chairman, Tea Association of India, says, “The cup that Assam produces — most of the consumers are not aware of it. We realize that more we give it to someone and get a repeat enquiry. The aroma and malty flavor that Assam teas have is not seen elsewhere. The market has blended teas of different origins and the true flavor of Assam tea is lost.” He adds that direct to consumer has started in a small way, but gardens don’t have the kind of resources it needs nor the marketing insight.
The market share lies with Tata Consumer Products, Hindustan Unilever, and Wagh Bakri. They continue to influence consumer preferences. Says Kandal, “The big packeteers are the ones who create the impression with the junta. Tea needs to be upscaled at even the lowest price point. Why are they not looking at explaining the value that even the cheapest tea brings to the consumer? If the poorest of the poor is buying it, he gets some value. Can they talk about the value?”
Jalan agrees, “The teas with major packeteers have been so commoditized that it does not encourage consumers to have more cups. Per capita consumption is still low.” He speaks of the need for a digital platform to promote Indian teas within the domestic and international markets. The Tea Association of India has proposed a Public-Private Partnership model, with producers and the tea board participating in creating the platform that will actively promote specialty tea.
Every tea producer recognizes the need to diversify and meet consumers halfway. Goodricke started making masala tea post-COVID. Their most recent release is a range of iced teas. Made from green tea sourced from their gardens, Badamtam and Barnesbeg, and bottled in glass, they see a successful pilot run in Delhi with Kolkata to follow. Dorje Teas in Darjeeling has launched a cold brew for the domestic market, Gopaldhara is making red oolongs, and Woolah in Assam is making bagless tea dips… there is diversification and innovation taking place, which may be the shift in India’s tea narrative.
But what of the consumer? Are they ready for a new way of drinking and enjoying tea? On the one hand, more than 50% of tea drinkers are from rural India, for whom price is a deciding factor. On the other hand, millennials with infamously short attention spans need to be hooked in the first 10 seconds of a post or a reel. The problem again returns to which India and which segment brands are pursuing. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. As many varieties of tea that the country produces, so too are the pockets that make up its markets.
What has changed is really access, anyone can order tea from anywhere in India, and more often than not, two-day delivery is possible.
Stories that sell
Rujani’s Raj Barooah chose to brand his leaves as whole leaf and not specialty tea. In his blog post, he writes, “I have come to realize that every specialty tea has to have a story behind it, sometimes true and sometimes, a better story than the tea. The success of this storytelling as a means to market the tea is evident, and has played an important role in birthing the category of specialty tea.”
For brands, “stories” are the marketing hook. And there are plenty of stories from the tea lands of India, whether history, conservation, culture, communities, or even ghost stories! But few have been able to exploit these stories memorably. The narrative continues to be half-hearted rather than sustained attempts to tell India’s story even though the customer seems eager to hear more.
Perhaps only Darjeeling has succeeded in offering customers a sufficiently intriguing story. There are many stories, from the story of young Margaret, who fell in love with the estate her father ran and promised to return but didn’t. Or, Jungpana and how it got its name from the dying and thirsty nobleman. One raconteur has used his skill to put his garden on the map: Rajah Banerjee, the former owner of the Makaibari tea estate.
When Rajah speaks of Darjeeling, it’s to describe it as a “magical, mystical land.” Rajah’s family-owned Makaibari for several generations, and in 1970, Rajah came home from England, where he was studying. In a tale he narrates expertly, he talks about how he felt the trees were calling to him to save them. One listens raptly as he speaks because he tells the story so well. Makaibari tea has reached the Queen of England in its time if one must measure its brand success. As a brand, it was ‘organic’ before that became a buzzword and ‘sustainable’ before we had even started talking about it.
“I was just having a love affair with this tract of land,” he says. “If you are passionate about whatever you do, whatever you’re committed to, you can market it. No tea is unsaleable. Every gram of tea can be sold. What you have to do is make that extra yardage to find a home for it.”
Makaibari has been a rare Darjeeling garden to market early to a domestic base. Rajah recounts being away in Berlin when he was at a store and saw a packet of tea that claimed to be Darjeeling but was “packed in Sri Lanka.” Before Darjeeling was granted protection of the European Union’s GI (Geographical Indication), it showed him how much had been given away in the opportunity.
In Darjeeling, Rajah opened up Makaibari to visitors. On weekends, he says, tourists arrived in large numbers, and every visitor got a tour of the factory and had a taste of tea. Everyone who walked out left buying a packet of tea. It was effortless marketing and helped build the brand. It was an experience people remembered.
For the mass market, tea has been sold on other narratives. One of the early TVCs for HUL’s Taj Mahal Tea featured tabla maestro, Zakir Hussain, endorsing the tea. Keeping the brand’s link to classical music intact, the most recent commercial for the Taj Mahal brand asks consumers to make time for tea even as classical music plays on, appealing to refined tastes.
Both TCPL and HUL have sought storylines that appeal to a higher ideal. For Tata, the Jaago re campaign was introduced in 2008 and is still in use. It started as a wake-up call to vote in the elections and expanded to various civic issues. HUL’s advertising covers many social issues, whether secularism, inclusion, or speaking up. Emotion and nostalgia continue to be compelling marketing narratives, especially for chai.
The challenge for new brands is in the lack of resources to match these expensive ad campaigns and find a narrative that is emotive and memorable and their own.
Because the best farm stories come from producers themselves, they are beginning to realize the interest consumers have in getting a peek into the world where their tea is grown and manufactured. And gardens are rich with these stories. Whether in how people live and work, flora and fauna, the plants, the factory… tea gardens are little worlds unto themselves; everything is potentially a story. An elephant herd passing through makes us stop and gasp with wonder; the paw print of a leopard on a muddy track is fascinating, as much as the journey of the leaf from the field, through the machines, and out.
The big question
Even as we speak of how digital is changing and transforming how consumers find, source, and access new teas, Raj Barooah voices caution. Sales are taking place on Amazon’s marketplaces, not the brand’s website. He points out. “Single digital websites like Rujani are not drawing traction. People prefer marketplaces. That’s where the whole thing is tilting. Even the bigger tea brands online are selling mostly on Amazon. “ He cites the story of Teavana in the US, the tea brand founded in 1997, bootstrapped but eventually reaching IPO and then bought by Starbucks for $620 million. “What became of Teavana? It peaked in success before a slump.” One reason cited is that its heavily retail presence could not keep up with online brands like DAVIDsTEA. “Are we still marketing tea?” asks Raj. “No one has found the growth curve. If Starbucks couldn’t, we are in serious trouble. There is a systemic problem in retailing tea. That’s the answer to the problem in marketing tea.”
“It is simple,” says Jagjeet Kandal. “Very, very simple. How do you move Indian consumption from the 780g? Get a hundred people in the room. Give them one question. Because there’s a role for the government to play in that, there’s a role for the marketeers to play there. And there’s a role for the producers. If we answer that question, we will have a solution.”
Maybe that’s the question, not whether people know about tea, or know how to source and brew it, and are willing to spend more on a better tea. Perhaps India’s tea marketing should begin with a single task of increasing consumption by one cup a day.
Indian legislators are currently considering a draft Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill to remove colonial-era provisions regulating tea and re-direct the Tea Board of India’s resources to expand existing markets and promote tea domestically. Tea Biz explores the challenges and opportunities of marketing Indian tea by examining:
A legacy of marketing tea as a blended, heavily spiced low-cost commodity beverage for the masses.
The rise of hundreds of direct-to-consumer (DTC) tea brands that rely on e-commerce as a promising and accessible retail platform.
Expanding choices available to tea lovers and how consumer preferences have moved beyond chai.
Nostalgia in marketing can be a double-edged sword – it may be twee to focus on quaint vintage designs or visual representation. It can also seem like a shamelessly exploitative marketing tool – to appeal to consumers in a way that borders on manipulative, like the low-hanging fruit of emotional recall. But when wielded correctly, it can be a lyrical exhortation to a more haloed historical era, to peddle something in the present by pointing out that the past is not all that different. It may inspire consumers to realize that in fact, in a lot of aspects, we are similar to our forefathers in what we want from life right down to how we eat and drink.
Taj Mahal tea has a rich storied advertising past that it frequently refers to in its current advertising. We don’t even have to go that far back. I doubt anyone can forget the visuals of the 1980s ad featuring Ustad Zakir Hussain’s head bobbing to the scintillating beat of his table and ending with the tagline “Wah, Taj!” It’s remarkable how the brand managed to forge a connection between a virtuoso performance by a percussionist maestro of classical Hindustani music, and the idea that the tea is restorative, as endorsed by an icon like him. But it clearly worked and one thing brand managers know is not to fix something that ain’t broke. In fact, things have come full circle with recent ads by Swiggy actually referencing this ad.
I think the use of nostalgia works if the brand is trying to spotlight a value that was successfully evoked in the past. It would almost be criminal not to leverage their own history. It is also a strategic way to ensure that consumers realize that their brand has a rich heritage in successfully creating and selling a great product. For instance, Wagh Bakri Chai was started 107 years back and may want its consumers to know that they have been around all this while, or that they started as a small tea brand inspired by Gandhian ideology way back when.
I think in the case of tea, nostalgia confers an immediate connection and grips the public imagination – reminding us of the tea we drank with our family, with friends, in decades past. It is still one of the first drinks we offer visitors and is a traditional beverage linked to Indianness despite its colonial origins, so it would make sense to leverage that in marketing it.
India produces 20% of the world’s tea. Production, however, has stagnated for years. Costs are up, and prices and exports are flat. Professional tasters report a decline in quality. Marketing tea to domestic consumers is a promising way to move past the doldrums. Tea is found in every household and Indians drink an average of two cups per person per day, consuming 90% of the tea grown there — but mainly purchase lower grades. Per capita consumption is modest at 840 grams due to a preference for tea in blends. Until recently, India exported virtually all its best teas. Tea discovery there is discouraged as imports from China, Taiwan, and Japan are expensive due to high tariffs, but rising affluence is overcoming these obstacles.
Caption: Jagjeet Kandal, country head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative
Realigning the Marketing of Indian Tea
By Aravinda Anantharaman
“When you look back, let’s say 30, 40 years, what has changed in the tea market? That’s the question we need to ask. And to me, there has been no great, no major earth-shattering change. Yes, we went from dabbas to paper boxes, tea bags, then poly packs… stuff like that. But the image of tea has not changed at all. And that, I think, is the basis of many problems,” says industry veteran Jagjeet Kandal, now country head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative.
Indian legislators are currently considering a draft Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill to remove colonial-era provisions regulating tea and re-direct the Tea Board of India’s resources to expand existing markets and promote tea domestically.
In this report, Tea Biz explores the challenges and opportunities of marketing Indian tea by examining:
A legacy of marketing tea as a blended, heavily spiced low-cost commodity beverage for the masses.
The rise of hundreds of direct-to-consumer (DTC) tea brands that rely on e-commerce as a promising and accessible retail platform.
Expanding choices available to tea lovers and how consumer preferences have moved beyond chai.
Price as a factor
“I think marketers need to take some of that blame because what they’ve done is made tea a common man’s drink. It has been marketed as the cheapest drink. When you market anything as cheap, it’s going to be very difficult to take that perception people’s mind and then tell them to come and pay more for it. So it was a short-term strategy or whenever this whole marketing stint started, but that’s the basis of what needs to change,” says Kandal.
Price became a factor in sales, trumping taste. Brands fought on price. Across the country, orthodox tea is not consumed by the masses. South India, in particular, favors dust-grade teas. But every producer and every brand owner talks about how the per cup cost between a mediocre tea and a higher quality tea differs by only a few rupees. The point is convincing, but that message has not been communicated to consumers.
New to tea
A century after exports surged, generating substantial wealth, India was still not a big tea market. Seventy years ago, few Indians had ever tasted tea. In contrast, the Chinese have kept tea in their homes for 5,000 years.
Like other plantation colonies, tea was cultivated in India to cater to demand in Europe. Wars and economic slumps disrupted trade, leading to a glut of tea that forced England to find new markets. The British turned expertly to India’s domestic population, marketing aggressively and creating a tea culture. It was phenomenally successful as tea is now an Indian legacy with deep cultural connotations.
India was largely rural in 1960, with 82% of the population of 370 million housed away from cities. Household consumption as a percent of India’s gross domestic product peaked that year at 87.4% percent. Manufacturing was focused on domestic needs, and exports consisted mainly of raw goods. Tea was a vital source of foreign income.
In 1960 India exported 195 m.kgs of tea and consumed 115 m.kgs. Ten years later, exports remained flat at 200 m.kgs, while domestic consumption had increased to 212 m.kgs. Today Indian consumers drink 90% of the tea it produces totaling a billion kilos in 2020.
One would expect that this has reduced the producers’ dependence on the export market. It has not. But given how the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, marketing costs, and now, war, have impacted trade, freight costs, and exports, the need to cultivate and nurture the domestic market has never been more urgent. There’s a need to nudge consumers towards better quality, higher-priced teas and even specialty tea. What producers seek is 1) convince consumers to look beyond CTC and chai, and even if they must stick to CTC, purchase a better-quality product at a marginally higher cost; and 2) how to increase per capita consumption by at least 100g from its current 750-850g per year.
There has been news of change brewing, with the Tea Board of India finally saying that they will no longer be a regulator but instead become a body that will market and promote tea. It’s a return to the Board’s original mandate, lost along the way and resurfacing now due to producers’ continuous demands. The Tea Board’s challenge will be to address India’s complex market.
Lessons from the past: The rise of packaged and branded tea
In the 1980s, television emerged as a mass media platform financed by consumer interest in packaged goods. That same decade, Tata Tea, helmed by Darbari Seth and Krishna Kumar, transitioned from bulk sales to branded tea from company gardens. Tata spent large sums marketing Tata Tea, Chakra Gold, and Tetley.
In 1984, Brooke Bond, India’s most popular and – certainly the oldest brand was acquired by Unilever. They had already diversified and merged with Liebig in 1968, generating $1 billion annually in sales. In 1984 PG Tips held 28% of the UK tea market by sales, and Tetley held 8%. Unilever, then the world’s largest packaged goods company, had acquired Lipton in 1977 but had no UK brands. In October 1984, Unilever spent $480 million to acquire 150 million shares, concluding a protracted and unfriendly takeover of Brooke Bond. Subsidiary Hindustan Unilever Ltd., (HUL) based in Mumbai, reported $5.3 billion in annual revenue in 2020.
Privately held Wagh Bakri, founded in 1919 and based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, sold loose tea in wholesale and retail outlets until 1980 when it began distributing packaged tea. The company invests 10% of revenue on advertising has since grown to become India’s third nationally distributed packaged tea brand
In 1985, Atul Asthana, currently Managing Director, joined the Goodricke Group. The group was formed in 1978 and now owns 29 gardens in Darjeeling, Assam, and the Dooars. Some of the most prized teas in the world come from the Goodricke portfolio, including Margaret’s Hope and Castleton in Darjeeling. “Goodricke had to diversify,” says Asthana. At first, the company started packaging tea in 250g and 500g packets, with each of their gardens keeping aside a percentage of production to go into retail. Their focus was on serving the north and east India markets.
“It is different from buying other teas. When you buy from auctions, the tea is already 4-6 weeks old. From there it goes to the warehouse and then on to the blenders. When we pack our teas, it’s fresher, it’s more immediate and it reaches consumer quickly,” said Asthana.
Gardens have a fantastic advantage for retail, when going direct to consumer: By bypassing the auctions, they could bring consumers a fresher tea. Already leveraged by brands like Lipton, whose tagline was “direct from tea garden to the teapot,” it is surprising that more gardens did not take this up and aggressively brand and market their teas. The reason is that the wholesale market was robust, Asthana explains. In the 1980s, a heyday for the tea industry, demand outstripped supply. As Asthana says, everything that was being produced found a market. The Soviet Union absorbed all the tea produced in India. Few gardens found a need to retail to a domestic market.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the tea industry, which had expanded to produce large volumes of tea, now struggled. As the share of exports declined, the domestic market discovered tea. Inexpensive and widely available, tea was a daily beverage that was easy to make and reasonably addictive. Before packaged teas, vendors sold loose-leaf in broken grades as blends customized to suit customer preferences (and local water conditions). Packaged blends delivered consistent taste, were cleaner and remained fresh in storage. Packaging was more appealing and convenient. Sales increased during the 1980s and 90s as the preference for branded tea grew. Ultimately a combination of factors, including higher disposable income, the proliferation of television, and other forms of advertising, along with the move toward trade liberalization. The only hitch was that this market was still extremely price-sensitive.
We end the two-part series with the questions needed to solve the mammoth task of rebranding the industry and realigning the domestic market toward quality tea.
How Tea Came to be Swadeshi
Swadesh was the call for independence – it translates roughly as our ‘own country.’ Mahatma Gandhi promoted swadeshi products to build national pride and self-reliance.
By Ramya Ramamurty
Tea was planted by the British in India to ensure an optional country of origin for their favorite beverage. China was the leading tea producer at the time. Tea plantations in India were an astute way for the British East India Company to de-risk this commodity in case the balance of trade with China was threatened by war or insurgency.
As the chapter on ‘Snacks and Biscuits’ in my second book Branded in History mentions, tea was seen as a ‘drug food’, and planted in India in Assam, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. Optimal conditions, conducive for the growth of tea, meant adequate rainfall, the right pH of the soil, and cool temperatures by Indian standards. The tea plantations were fairly oppressive under the colonial powers – indenture was common as a way to supply low-cost labor to the expanding plantations. But there were a few brands that came up in India with indigenous tea bushes or entrepreneurs.
In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scot who was wandering in the upper Brahmaputra Valley, near Rangpur in Assam, came across some wild bushes that changed the tea industry forever – it was the first discovery of indigenous tea. The Chinese imports had not taken as well as the British had hoped because of the summer heat in India. A couple of years later, 12 chests of Assam tea were sold for the first time at London auctions, paving the way for the foundation of the first tea plantation company in India: Assam Company India Ltd., (ACIL). The company was founded in London in 1839 and although they focused on tea, the management, which included dignitaries like Charles Alexander Bruce and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, wanted to keep options open to trade in other commodities like lime, coal or oil so the word tea was not referred to in its name. The company is still around, with its registered office in Kolkata, off Bentinck Road, named after Lord William Bentinck who was the Governor General who set up the first tea committee in Calcutta.
Another company that was born in colonial India and survived the various political upheavals and is still going strong is Wagh Bakri. Its founder Narandas Desai owned 500 acres of a tea estate in South Africa. His experience of racism there forced him to move back home to India with nothing more than a few valuables and a reference letter from Gandhi, in which Desai was hailed as an honest and experienced tea planter in South Africa. Desai started the Wagh Bakri Tea Company with a retail shop in Ahmedabad in 1915 with a logo espousing their values of equality. It showed a wagh (tiger symbolizing the upper class) drinking tea from the same cup in harmony with the bakri (goat) lower class. These are just two of the brands that launched in that era. Clearly tea took off as India is now the second largest tea producer worldwide, with 13,000 tea gardens, employing more than two million people.
Back in the pre-independence era, tea drinking became more acceptable in certain strata of society, and in those pockets, it replaced alcohol as a social lubricant. By the 1940s, as calls for Indian independence reached fever pitch – tea was seen as synonymous with colonial oppression. Notably, Gandhi discouraged Indians from drinking it as he felt it legitimized British presence in the country. British tea brands like Lipton, Twinings or Tetley that were being patronized by the British in India were replaced by the local Assam and Darjeeling teas that became more popular as we moved to Swadeshi.