Tea Wellness as Part of Brand India

Many months ago, I had written a blog post as well as a SlideShare presentation on Indian companies and brands in the global arena. In it, I had shared my thoughts on how many Indian companies had gone global in operations, but hadn’t done enough to build global brands yet. I had also shared my thoughts on how a few industries in India lend themselves to building a brand for India, as a country and as an investment destination. These are hospitality and airlines, where the former has internationally recognized Indian hotel chains that are highly regarded by the international traveller, both business and leisure. In airlines, unfortunately, our government’s aviation policies themselves have hamstrung us for the past many decades. Recently, we had the Covid pandemic which affected both hospitality as well as airlines; even more recently, we have had several mishaps with airlines in India.

Of course, Brand India as an investment destination is a large and complex subject with many elements to it, most importantly industrial policy and the investment and business climate it helps create. In this article, I would like to focus on a particular industry, which is a small part of Brand India only because we haven’t given it the attention and importance it deserves. However, it has huge potential to grow and flourish, and along with other industries, has the capability to take Brand India in the right direction.

I am talking of tea or what we call chai in India. Drinking tea is a habit prevalent across the country and it is consumed in myriad ways. What many of us don’t know is that it is also made in a wide variety of ways, each lending the drink its particular flavour and taste. We produce it in large quantities as well – though there is scope for this to grow and get better in quality – for our domestic market as well as for exports. Indian tea faces stiff competition in the international market, from countries such as Sri Lanka, Kenya, Indonesia and Malaysia. Within India too, it faces competition from other beverages, most importantly coffee which has managed to upstage tea in recent years since it is seen as a more cool and premium drink by younger consumers.

If we can raise the profile of India Tea to a premium drink prized as much for its delicate flavour and taste as its relaxation and wellness benefits, we would be attempting to create a brand out of what is still seen as a commodity. There are brands of Indian tea manufactured by the likes of Hindustan Unilever and Tata in the domestic market, but even these have not managed to build a brand that is capable of travelling across borders. Unilever’s Lipton Yellow Label is a global brand of tea, and Tata have Tetley, a British tea brand which they have also brought to India, but neither of these still has the essential attributes necessary to be a fine tea. Twinings is what comes closest to being a true tea brand, being true to the tea category itself, and within that being able to differentiate itself.

Take the case of Scotch whisky, for example. It too is produced from a crop – barley – and yet, it has achieved the status of a global beverage that is consumed and served with pride. Scotch whisky has managed to create an industry brand for Scotland and Britain, within which several leading brands compete at different price points and to different tastes.

Or take French wines and Champagnes. They have also managed to build an industry brand for France out of wines produced from grapes of various kinds, through proper cultivation and harvest techniques, wine grading systems and appellation, and finally the marketing of it. There too, we have several companies and brands competing within wines or champagnes. Of course, both Scotch Whisky and Champagnes enjoy geographical indication, which makes the drinks exclusive to their province or region. 

India’s Darjeeling tea was accorded geographical indication years ago, but we haven’t capitalized on it, nor invested enough in making it a brand of India. Part of the problem is the state of the industry in India. We have treated it as a packaged consumer good and branded it with whatever, but it has essentially stayed a nondescript commodity. I think the reason for this is that we haven’t understood the fundamentals of tea as a drink, nor have we created varieties of it based on nuances of taste. Outside of tea estates, very little knowledge and appreciation of this exists.

Tea estates in Darjeeling at the foothills of the Himalayas; Image: Boudhiyan Bardhan on Unsplash

I also think that Tea Board of India needs to play a much larger role in creating the right policy framework and marketing of India Tea, both within India and in the international market. On visiting Tea Board’s website, I found that there wasn’t much information on the kinds of tea produced in India, nor statistics on tea production and export, except for 2020-2022. The site features logos of some of India’s tea brands such as India Tea, Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, etc. which it refers to as products, but they don’t lead you to a page telling you more about the tea type.

I then visited the Ministry of Commerce’s website for data on Indian tea production and export. They seem to have the information, but have made the process of searching and finding it extremely cumbersome. First, they have placed tea under plantation along with coffee, rubber and spices. Then, they ask for an HS code (2/4/6/8) in the form that has to be submitted for the search result, which doesn’t work. This is not how I remember it to be from decades ago, when I have visited their website and found the information I needed instantaneously. I suspect Perfect Relations PR agency and their BBDO cronies have been busy at work meddling both with Tea Board and the Indian Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry.  

Nevertheless, I managed to find some very basic information in a “dashboard section” that has incorrect charts. However, with my own calculations based on this data, I have shared the state of the Indian tea industry as it exists, in my strategy document.

My recommendation is to build India Tea as an umbrella brand for all the varieties of Indian tea. Under this, build brands for the different teas by region and by type. Darjeeling Tea, Assam Tea, Nilgiri Tea, etc. are separate brands under India Tea. Then, I recommend that Tea Board formulate an appellation system to grade and certify the types of tea, which even CPG tea brands from companies ought to be required to feature on their packs. This would help improve the consumer’s understanding of the various types of tea and appreciation of it. There also have to be product improvements both in acreage and quality of Indian tea that is produced and financial assistance must be provided to tea estates to enable this investment.

I have explored the brand strategy for India Tea under three broad components: product (which covers cultivation, quality, processes, etc.), tea branding (appellation, tea type, and brand communications) and tea destinations (promoting travel to tea estates, appreciation and tea tasting sessions, etc.). Together, they provide a new direction for India Tea, raising its profile in the domestic and international market as a fine relaxation and wellness beverage. You can read my brand strategy as well as the campaign ideas for India Tea by clicking the link below.

Making Indian Tea a Toast to Wellness

As I state in my strategy and ideas document, there is a critical need to connect tea with tea estates and travel in order to improve understanding and appreciation of tea, create a romance around tea consumption and help it be perceived as a world-class Indian beverage that is preferred by connoisseurs worldwide. It also adds to the relaxation and wellness positioning of India Tea, that along with yoga, meditation, herbal products, wellness and ayurveda, can go a long way in building Brand India.

Tea estates in Nilgiris, or Blue Mountains in south India; Image: Srinivasan Venkataraman on Unsplash

The French have folded wines and Champagnes into the larger luxury industry, in which they excel like no other, save the Italians, who I don’t think have even attempted building their brand yet. The latest addition to this travel-taste-discover mode of building brands in France even decades ago was perfumes. The French fragrance industry worth billions, dominates the world, and is seen as distinct from their fashion counterparts, even though most French perfumes are owned by couture houses. And part of the mystique of French perfumes is discovering how and from what they are made, as well as travelling to the South of France – to a town called Grasse, the hub of the French fragrance industry – to explore more.

As part of my work from Ogilvy Delhi for Seagram, I have had the opportunity to visit Scotch whisky distilleries in Scotland and Cognac and Champagne in France. And I know most of these are open to visitors, because that is how they promote and build appreciation for their brands. And while I have visited the two perfume museums in Paris while on holiday there, I have not yet had the chance to visit Grasse.

India’s tea destinations are all located in scenic and picturesque locations, at the foothills of the Himalayas in the north or the Nilgiris in the south and make for ideal vacation spots already. We need to create the ideal tourism infrastructure in terms of travel access and accommodation as well as train people to be professional tea-tasters and guides to visitors at these tea gardens.

It’s time to make amends and restore Indian tea to its glory. Building brand India through a particular kind of wellness ought to be our cup of tea.  

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