As a non-tea drinker but a former History student, I was surprised to read that Unilever was considering the sale of PG Tips, Lipton Tea and Lyons. Surely not? Black tea is ingrained in British society and arguably a top five answer if you asked people to list something they associate with British culture – can it really be struggling?
If you look at figures from the Grocer, tea remains Britain’s most popular hot beverage with three-quarters of the nation drinking at least one cup each day. And black tea is the most frequently drunk tea across all age groups, with 45% choosing Breakfast as their favourite black tea blend. But dig a little deeper and the picture is less rosy. Sales fell by 3.4% last year and there are legitimate concerns that British black tea drinkers are a ‘dying breed’, as younger consumers are choosing coffee and other varieties of tea instead. Whilst tea drinking remains trendy, the humble black tea has lost ground to more exotic, new and exciting blends.
‘You can’t Instagram tea’ was the Guardian’s headline. They have a point; just think about your social media feed and when was the last time you saw someone post a snap of their homemade milky mug of tea, compared to say an arty shot of a flat white from this week’s favourite coffee shop?
I decided to ask the TVE team, if they were going to revive black tea, what would they do? How do we make it fashionable? I hit send and within minutes a wave of responses flooded my inbox.
What followed was an interesting debate – does black tea even need to be trendy? Perhaps the power of tea is that it’s a marker of real life, not the insta life. Even the coffee drinkers in the office got involved, suggesting innovation was the way forward. So, here’s a round-up of our thoughts on how to reinvigorate the humble brew:
- Let’s get talking
‘Tea isn’t just tea; it knits society together.’
‘Tea is part of the UK’s social fabric.’
Tea’s defenders were adamant that the humble side of black tea is a major selling point. Keen to champion the role of tea in conversation, especially facilitating difficult conversations, Lucinda and Issy pointed out the relationship between tea and mental health campaigns. People come together to talk over a cup of tea and to find some respite in a chaotic world. Going forward, what’s the potential for charity partnerships and social initiatives in spreading positive messages?
- How could you forget?
‘The humble builders tea is an absolute British classic.’
‘We have forgotten to love and provide positive messages around black tea.’
Whilst Issy thought about parallels with beer campaigns, Ed was reminded about the Kellogg’s Cornflakes campaign – Have you Forgotten…? Thinking about how we might reinject the humour into drinking tea, Ed has planned out a whole new advert for good news and good brews.
- Location, location, location
‘Tea is as exotic as coffee and yet PG Tips is as non-exotic as it gets.’
‘It’s really interesting that countries that don’t grow coffee are so synonymous with it due to is importance in culture and what the locals have done with it in terms of roasting and processing. E.g. The Italians. Who is doing that in tea – if anybody?’
As a coffee drinker, Alex pointed out how well coffee sells the idea of origin. Where your coffee comes from and how it’s made matters, and consumers often like adding an element of the exotic to the everyday. Tea has become so commoditised that it’s lost what made it interesting in the first place, whilst coffee retains an exotic sense of craftsmanship. Let’s remind people of the craftsmanship in tea.
The lack of an equivalent ‘tea house’ culture is also a potential issue. Coffee shops and the premiumisation of coffee have fuelled its popularity as social drink that is both an everyday staple and a small luxury. What kind of venues could give greater credibility to artisanal tea blends? Or is it enough that black tea’s locations and occasions are homes and places of work?
- Innova-tea – beyond the brew
‘Why are we not making black tea lattes? Everyone’s drinking matcha and chai lattes, a black tea latte can be instagrammable too.’
‘It just doesn’t taste as good with plant-based milk.’
‘What about tea in food, as the basis for rubs and marinades – tea-smoked salmon is delicious!’
Lucy and Issy came up with a whole raft of innovation suggestions. Noting that black tea doesn’t taste quite right with plant-based milks, they suggested creating a new range of black teas and a collaboration with dairy-free milk brand to find the perfect vegan-friendly blend.
Or how about black tea with no milk at all? Whilst Brits like brewing strong teas, there is the potential to brew it weaker and drink it with no milk. Weaker tea bags could also provide a base for black iced teas (Lucy pointed out that normal black tea bags are a little bitter for iced tea currently!)
Then of course there are bubble teas, flavoured black teas, chilled teas and what about tea in a can?
As TVE’s resident foodie, now based in San Francisco, Tom was quick to point out tea’s culinary role. With antioxidant credentials, what are the health benefits of black tea and could it extend into cosmetics and personal care?
Innovation offers a whole series of ways to reinvent black tea. In our experience there’s always a way to update a classic and learn from other brands and categories, be they small changes or big.
For a drink that has got everyone talking, tea brands remain remarkably quiet about something with so much heritage. Black tea might not be as trendy as coffee, but it has a central and emotive role to play in daily life. But the role that tea plays will be different for different types consumers. Here at TVE we like to think beyond the simple and narrowminded, and the strategy to revive black tea is an excellent case for embracing a little multiplicity: there isn’t one solution here. Thinking about how we position tea, what language we use, what messages we send and to who, are all going to be important in the fight to maintain tea’s position as the no.1 hot beverage. Black tea brands have core consumers to cater for but if they want to reclaim lost ground, they need to attract new ones and innovate. Whether that’s new formats, new flavours or new occasions, it is time for tea brands to get creative!