“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the [tea] party”


April 18, 2017

by Andrew Wardlaw

According to my mum (and incidentally, WIKIPEDIA), the title above was proposed as a typing drill by instructor Charles E. Weller in 1889. It also serves as a call to action for players in the £620m U.K tea market...

Tea is struggling to maintain relevance with younger consumers. With increasing frequency, you’re likely to hear the words ‘I don’t drink tea’ from anyone under 25. It’s like the innate triggers for having a brew are lacking from their lives. For those of us still buying the black stuff, the value we place on the category is eroding. Tea is not something we’re prepared to pay more for. The Grocer reports “increased dealing has stripped out value… the price of some black tea bags has fallen to as low as a penny.”

Is black tea doomed to perpetual decline?

Scrambling around for something more optimistic, The Grocer (03.09.16) goes on to highlight the potential of functional tea (like Tetley’s Super Boost teabags), new convenience formats (like tea pods) and the possible renaissance of loose leaf tea.

On this last point, I’d like to call upon the tea industry to get together and give this ‘possible renaissance’ a collective jump start. It is my conviction that loose leaf tea has the potential to take the category narrative beyond convenience & cost - and towards some of the things that matter to millennials - comfort & connection. 

Seeking Comfort
As part of an in-house study into consumer attitudes, behaviours and perceptions pertaining to food & drink, we have discovered beyond any doubt that millennials are far less invested emotionally in food & drink categories compared to their parents. That said, when we look to what millennials most associate with the tea category, we see that ‘comforting’ is markedly ahead, followed by ‘traditional’ and ‘simple’. For their parents, tea is most associated with ‘traditional’ and ‘masculine’. For them, ‘comforting’ comes in seventh. 

Consider the context. Millennials are a worried generation. Concerns over finance, health and ‘most things’ are markedly higher with younger consumers. There's underlying unease that key milestones – buying a house for example – are an ever-more distant prospect. With tea highly linked to ‘comforting’, is there an opportunity for tea brands to offer a comforting brew with real conviction - tea & sympathy no less!

Tea brands must now consider how they can signal 'comforting' more clearly across all touchpoints - brand, pack and product.

In my view, there is something infinitely more comforting in brewing with loose leaf compared to teabags.

Shifting Emphasis

It all starts with what’s happening in store of course, which is why the look and feel of the tea aisle needs to change wholesale. Hence the requirement for a collective effort. But imagine, if you will, a tea aisle rebalanced with exquisitely packaged loose leaf tea blends – merchandised according to flavour notes, intensity and origins. Category associations shift towards ‘discovery’, ‘adventure’ and ‘premium’.

Now imagine the occasion, where the little rituals surrounding the brewing process have become the centre of informal social gatherings. Where people have linked the slow infusion of the tea leaves in the pot with the growing need for moments of mindfulness (mental comfort, if you like).

Seeking Connection

Independent living (whether single person households or living as a single unit in shared accommodation) is at record levels – and represents well over 50% of the populations of many European cities.

Is it a coincidence that KANTAR World Panel is reporting a continuing increase in the number of occasions defined by emotional criteria – notably ‘Together Time’, ‘Celebration’, ‘Social’ and the like? Digital natives are seeking deeper connections with friends and family to off-set the isolation of an online existence.

I assert that loose leaf tea is intuitively well placed to occupy the center of such occasions. A catalyst for social connections - slower, more ceremonial and more immersive.

Look to Sweden

If you think I’ve lost the plot, look to Sweden. People there have decided that there’s more to life than grabbing a beverage ‘on-the-go’ whilst swiping left. Instead they have opted for ‘Fika’ time – defined as a state of mind, an attitude and now an important part of Swedish culture. Many Swedes consider it essential to make time for Fika every day. Making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee or tea and a little something to eat.

For Swedes, Fika is nothing revolutionary, it's simply part of their everyday life; But talk to any Swede who has moved abroad, or anyone who has visited Sweden, and they'll tell you all about how wonderful Fika is and how you should be doing more of it.

Whilst coffee is at the centre of Swedish Fika, surely it’s tea that has the potential to replicate this phenomena in the U.K. I cannot think of a more appropriate time for all the good men (and women) in the tea industry to introduce Fika to us Brits. Timing is everything. Ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Unilever has recently acquired stylish tea brand T2, but could there be more to do with loose leaf?


Sometimes we need to look beyond category borders and explore what is happening on a more macro level. Tea is a category with heritage, which is no bad thing from a millennial perspective. But tea’s ability to excite a new generation seeking comfort and connection is not being delivered from an aisle dominated by bags. Whilst there will always be a need for convenient, low cost formats, it is not where growth is going to come from. Loose leaf – with its potential to be more sociable, more comforting and more experiential – is surely where the growth lies.

I have a good feeling that in 5 years’ time, we Brits will have discovered Fika time – and that the younger consumer will be developing a more meaningful relationship with tea.

Andrew Wardlaw, Director of Insight - MMR Research Worldwide