September 2005 | Cynthia Rodrigues

The highs of tea

Millions of tea drinkers across the country have put their faith in Tata Tea, a company whose products have consistently lived up to their promise

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The genteel art of drinking tea will never go out of style. From the humble streetside stall to the corporate boardroom, it is an intrinsic part of our life. From the parlours of dainty Victorian noblewomen to the living rooms of Indian homes, tea has ever been the cup that refreshes and the beverage that bonds.

Tea accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the total beverage consumption in this nation of more than 1 billion people. And Tata Tea, the leading player in India's packaged tea market, has the privileged role of catering to the needs of this large consumer segment.

The challenge facing Tata Tea is heightened given the diversity of tastes and preferences in the country. Tea brands have to contend with the fierce loyalty that consumers display towards their favourite blends. After all, the drinking of tea is deeply ingrained in an individual and tied inextricably with family and social customs. Being a market leader in a commodity such as tea means ensuring consumer loyalty in a time of changing tastes and attitudes, and the increasing onslaught from cola and coffee makers.

But Tata Tea has always proven itself equal to the occasion. Today, more than 14 million Indian households, accounting for roughly 9 per cent of the 155 million tea-drinking families in the country, are regular patrons of the brand. Nearly 2,250 million cups of Tata Tea are consumed in India every month.

Tata Tea has been able to meet the needs of its consumers in terms of taste, blend and price through its five brands and their many variants. Tetley along with its whole range of new Indian flavours in tea bags, Kanan Devan, Gemini and Chakra Gold, apart from Tata Tea, the flagship brand with its variants (Tata Tea Premium, Tata Tea Gold and Tata Tea Agni ), have helped Tata Tea maintain its leadership.

Tata Tea started in 1964 as Tata Finlay, a joint venture between the Tata group and James Finlay. In 1983, the ownership of the company passed completely into the hands of the Tata group, and the company was named Tata Tea. In its new avatar the company decided to focus on branded products instead of commodity sales. It was at this point that the need for strong branding, became critical to guard Tata Tea from any fluctuations in the commodity market and to ensure its sustained growth.

Tata Tea thus made a deliberate effort to set itself apart from the other operators in the packaged tea segment. Most companies rarely grew the teas that they marketed. Tata Tea created history when it chose to deviate from this path by undertaking the growing, processing and packaging aspects of tea, and then selling its produce directly to consumers. The move enabled it to retail a variety of teas, to control the entire value chain and ensure the purity and quality of its produce.

The fact that it was the latest entrant in an industry that had so far only seen veterans in the fray did little to faze Tata Tea. What seemed like a disadvantage actually worked in the brand's favour, and Tata Tea began to be seen as a young, modern brand. The communications and advertising messages further strengthened the image, especially with celebrities endorsing the brand and widening its appeal. The commercials projected the brand's freshness and energy, a marked deviation from the family-centric advertising that competitive brands adopted. They also helped establish the garden-fresh proposition of Tata Tea (it was one of the first Indian brands to use the taazgi — meaning freshness — platform in the foods category).

The acquisition of the UK-based Tetley in 2000, the second largest tea brand in the world and a company three times larger than itself, was a huge triumph for Tata Tea. It was a masterstroke that not only helped it establish a foothold in overseas markets such as the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, but also validated its position among the giants in the global beverages market. Such victories and its popularity on its home turf saw Tata Tea being listed among the top 100 brands in India by Superbrands India.

In recent years, a fall in the prices of tea in the unorganised sector has led to a decline in the sales of branded tea. Tata Tea countered this by introducing Tata Tea Gold, a variant for consumers who sought aroma as well as a stronger flavourm, and Tata Tea Agni to complement the Tata Tea brand and give consumers a wider choice. Tata Tea Premium has undergone a total revamp — packaging, positioning and communication using Sania Mirza — making the brand more contemporary and modern.

Today, Tata Tea brand sells more units than any other competitive brand. Quality, reliability and trustworthiness, the hallmarks of the Tata brand, have now begun to be identified with Tata Tea. Most importantly, consumers have begun to realise that Tata Tea's promise of quality is as dependable as the refreshing goodness of the golden quaff.