Packaging is the unsung hero of the global tea business

Tea estates grow lovely verdant bushes on picturesque terrain, but then rely on tea packaging to sell their output. Every ounce of tea at some point between harvest and consumption exists in a container, and retail point-of-purchase laws often make it necessary for packaging to display net weight, nation of origin, and company address. In fact, throughout the entire Western world almost all tea bought for home consumption is in labeled packaging.

The broadest trend in retail tea is the expansion of cardboard packaging. Other packaging trends exist, but are more narrowly focused. On the lowest demographic end, plastic packet are expanding market territory among the rural indigent; on the most upscale end, the materials used for packaging include brass, ceramic, porcelain, fine hardwoods, and micro-engineered tins. While such prestigious packaging elevates the status of the entire tea trade, this top line contains only a fraction of a single percent of the tea sold world-wide by net weight. The most popular mid-range packaging format, cardboard, captures the major market share.

Countless millions of cardboard tea boxes sit on store shelves throughout the world. These boxes are the primary vehicle for tea brands and company slogans to reach consumer awareness. The alternative to entering consumer consciousness is failure. Companies in this competitive business are now allocating additional money for more attractive packaging. Graphic designers and advertising experts are among the highest paid professionals now hired by successful tea companies. Even lawyers enter the packaging picture, advising on proper labeling of trademark, copyright, nation-of-origin, net weight, contents, and health or purity claims.

Customer perception of a package creates brand equity and purchaser loyalty. The image presented by the package largely determines success or failure of a tea line. Appearance stimulates memories and emotions inside the purchase, who oftentimes is female, often buying for an entire family. Color, imagery, and slogans all combine to facilitate customer allegiance.

Tea executives are routinely sophisticated in production, tax avoidance, labor management, and a hundred other business topics. Yet they rarely understand packaging design. The executives, almost always men, who authorize final decisions on packaging generally lack artistic design knowledge. Good tea packaged in a dull box can earn a profit, but will sell below potential.

Executives who hold ultimate approval over packaging decisions tend to attain their senior positions after working in areas of the tea business unrelated to the topic of stylistic point-of-purchase image. I notice that these executives do not know the names for the colors on their company's packaging, even if they decided upon the packaging themselves; and precise hues, tints, and shadings do influence consumer choice, as market research consistently demonstrates.

Blue is the best example. For household products bought by women, blue packaging generates more sales. The tea industry remains behind many consumer goods sectors in performing market research about packaging. If you are interested in an education in the power of integrating blue into packaging, walk down a laundry product aisle.

Tea companies that are subsidiaries of larger corporations tend to enjoy packaging and branding advantages. The world's most widely distributed branded tea, Lipton, is a relatively small component of Unilever, a leader in the entire household goods category and one of the most powerful corporations in existence. Unilever owns the newest tea product with the potential to substantively change consumer habits: Lipton's Cold Brew Blend. This brand's box top and upper front are cyan blue with a soft, deep red banner. The main color of front and sides is a sunny yellow.

Both yellow and red can attract a shopper, helping the tea package to stand out from the many other brands sharing shelf space. Blue is one of the least intimidating colors, rarely generating a negative impression, and often conveying positive emotions, like security and relaxation in specific hues like "baby blue," "sky blue," "powder blue," and "robin's egg blue." All are friendly, safe, modestly charming images, with the air of calm family lifestyle.

Unilever protects its brand names, slogans, and packaging innovations with trademark and copyright. One package of Cold Brew Blend displays the ? registration mark six times and the ? copyright notice once. Skillfully reinforcing the brand name in the public mind, the work "Lipton" appears 21 times, in various sizes, on the 48-count teabag retail cardboard box. These 21 brand name "hits" are accomplished without ostentation, and represent modern use of packaging to entrench brand equity.

Lipton knows a cardboard box is more than just a container for the tea inside, serving double duty as potent publicity. Packaging labels send signals not just to consumers, but to other tea companies, proclaiming legally protected status for brand names, slogans, logos, design and test, warning competitors against duplicating their use.

Complexity arises with truly global branding. Unilever does control many companies, in different nations, that use the name "Lipton," including Hindustan Lever Ltd., itself a huge, powerful, diversified company that markets Lipton-branded packaging.

Whether a middle-class buyer of Lipton is in the Asian subcontinent or the U.S., he or she is exposed to the same red and yellow packaging colors. Multi-national tea companies maintain an advantage by marketing consistent colors across national boundaries, reinforcing global branding. The color of currency ( and the color of human skin) may vary among regions of the world, but a truly global corporation can create a uniformity of appearance impossible for any other entity, even a government.

Simple, traditional slogans tend to command international appeal, such as Lipton's " 100% Natural and 100% Real Tea," which shows the popularity of nature and health. Women are the core demographic tea's international marketplace. Cold Brew Blend's back label depicts Mary Lou Retton (a woman athlete), saying, "I'm a busy working mom like you and I enjoy making iced tea for my family." The final two sentences are masterpieces of package labeling, "It's a great new way to enjoy real brewed tea anywhere and any place. Also, there's great news about tea's role in a healthy lifestyle." Mary Lou is petite and perky, presenting a wholesome, non-threatening image to men and women. She is also a healthy, attractive woman who is neither seductive nor submissive.

Memorable punning, like pleasant imagery, effectively prods consumers to remember the product. Tylos Tea London Limited prints the name of its double-flavored line, "TOOTEA FRUTEA," in bannered capital letters. Tylos is operationally based in Sri Lanka, with British financial backing. Tylos distributes one dozen major tea lines to the world outside North America, with plans to enter the U.S. market. Some Tylos packaging is quadrilingual, an economy-of-scale allowing higher-volume manufacturing runs. Each such package is marketable in four different language regions. Their 20-count package has the slogan, "Tylos Tea… It's a part of your life," and "Pure Ceylon Tea Packed in Sri Lanka."

Tea companies, many in Sri Lanka, that at one time were primarily bulk wholesalers are now marketing their own extensive proprietary retail brands. This means extra business for packaging suppliers, manufacturers, and designers. Maskeliya Plantation Group, owning 20 estates in Sri Lanka, is steadily moving into retail sales with branded lines. Maskeliya's Plamas ? English-style line, packaged in octagonal cardboard, originates each brand from a specific estate and names the brand for a suggested time of daily consumption, such as "English Breakfast," "English Sundown" and "English Supper." Maskeliya's basic economy line, Gold, has packaging in the color of the brand name.

Twinings, probably the world's best-known premium brand, recently ran a second printing of a successful packaging insert, "The Twinings Tea Register." Twinings is now co-marketing with Brita Water Pitchers, placing the Tea Register in the upscale water-filtration company's packaging, directly linking the specialty water demographic with the specialty tea demographic. Brita trademarked the slogan, "Makes Tap Water Taste Great." The Twinings/Brita co-marketing reaches well-educated affluent consumers who previously had little contact with tea. This new public exposure to specialty tea is brilliantly accomplished by the packaging of a household product, the water pitcher, used daily in family life. The Tea Register's designer is Kimberly Cassar, a talented, diligent professional at Grosvenor Marketing, a Twining subsidiary.

Tata Tea, long renowned for deep pockets and quality control, keeps alert for long-term trends with in-house strategic corporate planning executives, such as Kulbir Mehta. Mehta's diverse skills help position Tata for the new harsher competitiveness of export globalization. After training in agricultural science, Mehta received field experience in Assam, then entered development banking, then became Tata's R & D manager, and now handles strategy and corporate affairs. Guiding Tata Tea's performance is the executive director, M.H.Ashraff, who is also chairman of the influential United Planters Association of South India, which represents most cash crop species in that important region.

Globalization inevitably involves every region of the tea business. The prestige and the economics of tea are based on export and hard "foreign" currency. The international millennium is already here, and tea companies that are part of internationally operating enterprises have a head start. Hindustan Lever Ltd's slogan shows its preparedness: "integrated bush-to-brand strategy." HLL can quickly expand into the premium export market, having already perfected a loose leaf Darjeeling blend (Green Label) in a higher quality category than the sister company's blend, Sir Thomas Lipton Darjeeling. HLL plans on market expansion, and is introducing new packaging technology that apparently extend freshness stability, fostering sales to the most rural, transport-deficient areas.

HLL is the largest tea blending and packaging company in India (source: Reuters). India is both the world's largest black tea market and the world's largest democracy. HLL's recently created, trademarked brand, New Lipton, utilizes the new packaging technology. Irfan Khan, general manager of corporate communications, coordinates the modern media push for brand recognition. HLL is leading modernity-oriented youth back to tea, a beverage with an overly staid, old-fashioned image among too many millions of younger Asians.

The long-term competitor in the crucial youth market is soft drinks, according to V.Venkatesh, beverage marketing manager for HLL. Chairman of directors, K.B.Dadiseth looks to broad-based economic growth to raise consumer purchasing ability, increasing tea sales. Sanjay Khosla, director, and R.K.Lall, divisional vice president, HLL, expect future gains in domestic market share, especially with the new packaging.

Predicting trends is difficult at best, but one factor appears permanent. Branding displayed on packaging is increasing. The world's most recognized brand is a beverage, Coca-Cola. Tea has been slower than other beverage categories to capitalize on the trend toward branding. A positive brand image is itself a valuable property for a tea company. If one company displays another company's registered slogans or brand names without permission, then that is termed "theft of intellectual property," legally analogous to stealing a truckload of tea.

Intellectual property rights in the tea trade are now actively supported by senior government officials more accustomed to hearing instead from other businesses, like software or garment. In Washington, D.C. Minister Ajai Malhotra, Emvassy of India, allocates precious time to promote international legal protection specifically for his nation's tea export. In the glovalized socioeconomic system, tea industry leaders must link up with their government's officials stationed abroad, to coordinate protection of both company brands and valuable region-of-origin names.

Packaging and slogans constitute the brand in the public's mind. Packaging and slogans also promote a national identity: "Formosa" signifies Taiwan; "Ceylon" is packaging labelese for Sri Lanka; and "Darjeeling," "Assam" or "Nilgiri" translate into India. Millions of consumers who will never travel to any of these nations look daily at a tea package, and because of it regard the producer nation in a positive light. Companies who sell retail tea packages internationally are right to ask their governmental Tea Boards to protect their legally entitled brand names, images, and slogans that must now compete in the global marketplace.

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