Packaging is a critical component of marketing tea, for whichever tea market segment a brand targets.
Well-crafted packaging is equally important to those targeting the mass market, as it is to those targeting the specialty tea market. In each case, packaging decisions provide an opportunity for tea companies to position their company, reflect their branding, and resonate with their target market.
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Brick Tea And Compressed Tea
China created the technology to create brick tea, or teacakes, to facilitate tea exports to foreign markets (e.g., Russia), and trade with neighbouring frontier states (e.g., Tibet). During the Tang dynasty (618–907), brick tea grew in popularity.
Regional pockets within central Asia still prepare brick tea: Mongolia, Tibet, and parts of China still consume high quantities of brick tea. Today, the existing production facilities for brick tea are based in the Chinese provinces of Hunan and Yunnan.
In 2020 China produced 2.97 million metric tons of brick tea, of which 90% (2.1 million metric tons) was consumed in the domestic market.
Today brick tea plays a relatively insignificant role in world trade. Compare China's 2020 production of brick tea, 404,300 metric tons, with its total tea production of 2.74 million metric tons. However, while the role of brick tea in world trade may be comparatively insignificant, its role in the specialty tea market remains meaningful.
Pu-erh tea is most often sold in brick form; raw pu-erh (Sheng) and ripe pu-erh (Shu) are sold as compressed tea, moulded into various forms. Green, white, and black tea can also be packaged as compressed tea, although these teas are less commonly packaged as such.
Teacakes are the most common form of compressed tea sold in Western and European markets; they are common in China too. The packaging of teacakes has four key elements:
- The wrapper
- The ticket (Nèi fēi)
- The description sheet (Nèi piào)
- The teacake (Bĭng)
The tea wrapper is typically made from cotton paper or thin cotton cloth. In China, the tea wrapper customarily shows the tea company or factory responsible for manufacturing the teacake, as well as the year of production. It is also customary for Chinese teacake wrappers to show the region or mountain of harvest, the plant type, and the recipe number.
In North American and European markets, where teacakes are less common, brands typically use the wrapper to display artwork, which usually reflects the product's name. Brands like Mei Leaf and White2Tea, distinguish themselves in the tea market with their teacake packaging.
Teacakes also come with a small ticket (Nèi fēi) that’s embedded into the teacake; it usually indicates the tea factory and brand. The small embedded ticket is a step to signal the authenticity of the tea to consumers. Premium pu-erh cakes may have multiple tickets embedded.
Teacakes also come with a description sheet (Nèi piào) packaged loose under the wrapper. These description sheets serve two purposes. First, it assures consumers of product authenticity (e.g., it often reflects the factory and brand). The description sheet also acts as marketing collateral. It may use brand storytelling techniques (e.g., highlight the tea factories' history), communicate the tea's value proposition (e.g., taste and rarity), or alleged benefits (e.g., weight loss).
Finally, there is the teacake itself (Bĭng). Reputable tea brands use a single grade of tea leaves throughout the cake; the consumer gets what they expect and pay for.
Counterfeit And Deceptive Teacakes
Counterfeit pu-erh is common. Counterfeit practices include claiming the tea is older than it actually is, misidentifying the origin of the leaf as Yunnan instead of a non-Yunnan region, labelling terrace tea as forest tea, and selling green tea instead of raw pu-erh.
The small ticket (Nèi fēi) embedded into teacakes is important in identifying and preventing counterfeits. In China, disreputable tea vendors package inferior tea in knock-off tea wrappers, imitating the packaging of legitimate factories. These counterfeit products are sold to unsuspecting consumers at full price. One step consumers can take to mitigate the risk of exploitation is checking each cake for the small ticket before purchasing. But in some cases, even this ticket may be forged.
Some tea factories in China (e.g., the Menghai Tea Factory) are taking leading roles to protect their brand and consumers. Such factors are now microprinting and embossing their tickets to curb counterfeit teas.
Deceptive teacakes are also common. Disreputable tea brands may use two different grades of tea leaves. Such unethical tea merchants place the higher grade of leaf on the outside, and the lower grade of leaves in the centre. Such deception improves margins for retailers at the consumer's expense.
Loose Leaf Tea Packaging
The loose leaf tea market was valued at USD 78.7 billion in 2020; it represented 38% of the total global tea market, valued at 207.1 billion.
Loose leaf tea consumption is most common in Turkey, which consumes 6.96 pounds per capita of loose tea annually. Global loose leaf tea consumption has been growing year over year (YoY); a 5.17% CAGR increase occurred from 2011 to 2021.
Given the increasing demand for loose leaf tea, brands and consumers are more attentive to loose leaf tea packaging. Loose leaf tea is packaged in three ways:
Consumers are increasingly interested in sustainable tea packaging.
A segment of consumers believes purchasing loose-leaf tea allows for more sustainable packaging options. Some loose leaf tea brands cater to sustainability preferences by using biodegradable materials (e.g., cardboard) or reusable containers (e.g., metal tins). Loose leaf tea offers consumers value, as you pay for the product rather than the packaging.
Plastic Food Grade Tea Bags
Food-grade plastic tea bags are the most cost-effective option for loose leaf packaging.
The beneficial reduction in the cost of goods sold that brands experience when packaging loose tea in food-grade plastic bags, must be weighed against two potential drawbacks:
- Increased difficulty with premium products
- Potential negative sentiment for adopting single-use plastic packaging
Cardboard containers, or paperboards, are the most popular packaging option for loose leaf tea brands.
Three factors driving the popularity of cardboard packaging include:
- Customer sentiment (e.g., it’s perceived as being more sustainable)
- Low cost
Research shows that 67% of consumers value sustainable packaging, and 74% are willing to pay a premium for it. This willingness to pay, combined with the cost savings tea brands create, makes cardboard containers an attractive option.
Cardboard containers provide flexibility as tea companies can use them for loose leaf tea and tea sachets. This flexibility allows tea brands to adapt to product demand while keeping packaging costs fixed, controlling the cost of goods sold.
Food Grade Tea Tins
Tea tins reflect the packaging style that is more common in the specialty tea market than in the broad tea market.
Loose leaf tea tins are a popular packaging option among tea consumers and brands. Such loose leaf tea storage tins may be branded or unbranded. Branded tea tins can be product specific, or generic to the tea brand.
Unbranded tins are cheaper for tea companies to purchase, and are well suited to tea brands with product lines that turn over often. Brands can create product-specific labelling by affixing labels in the form of stickers, either in retail stores at the point of purchase, or, in the case of e-commerce companies, before shipping products to consumers.
Many tea companies have made unbranded tea tins an integral part of their success. Such a packaging decision ensures complete flexibility and protects the brand from having money tied up in the packaging of discontinued teas.
Branded tins are more expensive for brands to produce; it requires sending brand assets (e.g., logo) and specifications (e.g., brand colours) to manufacturers. Manufacturers often insist on a minimum order quantity for such tins.
However, tea companies that use branded packaging can position their products as premium more easily. And, building brand recognition can cultivate familiarity in consumers, so they may be more likely to repurchase the brand. Such repeated exposure to familiar packaging may leverage the mere exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to prefer things that are more familiar to them than others.
Tea companies can also invest in creating tea tins that are specific to the brand and the tea product. While this packaging option may be more expensive, it’s most likely to allow brands to successfully position their products as premium. Consider how luxury brands selling tea (e.g., Fortnum and Mason, Twinings, TWG) use tea tins uniquely designed for individual products.
Twinings Loose Leaf Tea Tins
Twinings loose-leaf tea tins provide an excellent example of well-executed tea packaging. The Twinings tin is an example of the best tea packaging because it uses visual hierarchy well. The brand name is prominent, taking up a quarter of the tin front. The blend name is also prominent, taking up a quarter of the tin front, as well.
The remaining space on the front of the tin contains less prominent, supporting text. The uppermost text inspires consumer trust and respect (e.g., “By appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth”). Text placed lower on the tin also inspires trust by hinting at the brand's longevity (e.g., Since 1706). Discrete text sets consumer expectations of taste (e.g., “A traditional blend of black teas creating a satisfying rich taste”). This text is well paired with visual cues indicating product strength.
Beneath the lid, an aluminium seal ensures product quality and provides evidence of a tamper-free product. The aluminium covering peels back smoothly, heightening the sense of expectation and quality.
Nylon Tea Bags
Nylon tea bags are sachets that are made of nylon mesh; they are sometimes called tea temples or tea pyramids. One of the greatest advantages of nylon tea bags over traditional tea bags is the ability to marry premiumization and convenience.
Pyramidal tea bags use the same thermodynamic brewing principles as a teapot. The leaves in the tea bag are pushed upward by pressure exerted from the bottom of the pyramid. The pyramid shape facilitates the upward flow of the leaves, which offers 50% more space for leaf movement.
Thermal escapes through the upper peak of the tea pyramid when heat transfer takes place. Designing the tea pyramid for thermodynamics increases the rate of infusion, and improves colour, aroma and flavour. During a 40 second period, a 15% increase in flavour occurs.
Nylon allows tea drinkers a premium experience. The consumer can see the quality raw ingredients (e.g., leaves, dried berries) through the translucent mesh, and they can watch the infusion take place. The nylon tea bags are typically larger than conventional tea bags; they allow room for full leaf teas to unfurl and expand.
Nylon tea bags also offer tea drinkers access to equal or greater convenience than traditional tea bags. Consider how Tea Forte uses packaging innovation to improve the tea drinkers’ experience. Instead of the conventional string, Tea Forte uses a wire. This substitution of material allows tea drinkers to bend the wire over the teacup without the risk of the teabag slipping into the hot water.
However, despite the clear advantages of nylon tea bags, there are also some potential drawbacks:
- Environmental impact
- Customer concerns about microplastics
Nylon tea bags cost more. Brands pay a cost per unit between $0.03 and $0.07 for each nylon teabag. Conventional tea bags, by comparison, may cost brands between $0.20 -0.40 per unit. The increased costs brands incur using nylon tea bags are passed on to consumers; products sell at a higher price point.
Nylon is a broad category; nylon covers many different fabric types made from synthetic polymers.
Some synthetic materials are not safe when heated because they release chemicals. As nylon tea bags are exposed to boiling water, some consumers worry about chemicals and nylon teabags microplastics leaching into tea.
Consumer concern for microplastics in tea peaked in September 2019, with the topic experiencing peak popularity (100 search interest) from September 22 to 28th, 2019.
Nylon has high heat resistance, higher than the temperature associated with boiling water. However, ambiguity exists because the safety of nylon tea bags has undergone little testing, so verification of safety isn’t possible.
Some consumers focus on the environmental impact of nylon tea bags, specifically on nylons’ inability to decompose. Nylon has a longer degradation time than conventional teabags (made from polyethylene terephthalate, silk, cotton, nylon), but less than other plastics.
How long does it take to break down?
Nylon Tea Bag
3 to 6 months
Sustainable Alternatives To Nylon
Some tea companies, such as teapigs, have invested in differentiating their brand through sustainable packaging. This effort to differentiate informs teapigs packaging decisions, and content marketing strategy.
Teapigs make their tea temples from cornstarch; the attached string is also made from cornstarch, and the label uses paper and vegetable-based dye. Teapigs’s alternative to nylon tea bags is fully compostable when tea drinkers discard it into food waste. Teapigs’s commitment to sustainable tea packaging extends beyond their tea temples and into other dimensions of tea packaging.
By producing articles such as “Is there plastic in our tea and packaging?” teapigs offers content that allows the brand to meaningfully engage with customers and prospects. This interaction occurs at scale; “Is there plastic in our tea and packaging?” generated 96-105 monthly searches in 2021.
Tetley officially introduced the teabag to the UK market in 1953. As a first mover, Tetley established a monopoly on the tea bag trade around that time. The first generation of Tetley tea bags had square rectangular forms and was designed for use in teapots (not cups).
Soon after the introduction of tea bags, tea brands made it the cornerstone of their marketing strategy. Tetley actively defended its position as a market leader; the brand continued to invest in packaging innovation through research and trial. In 1989 Tetley released a round teabag, and it was a marketing success. Tea drinkers preferred the shape; it became dominant in the UK and other tea markets.
Marketers have issued claims and counterclaims about which tea bag shape offers tea drinkers a superior infusion experience. For example, in the 1990s Typhoo claimed square bags had more perforations, allowing more flavour to flow out and create a superior steeping experience. Today, the markets reflect other packing options (e.g., tins, cardboard, tea pyramids, sustainable tea packaging) by which brands differentiate themselves.
Today, tea bags are manufactured in different forms. Square tea bags are produced separately or attached to one another, joined by a perforation. Tea brands actively protect product integrity by enclosing tea bags in envelopes, which are heat-sealed or crimped. Specific types of tea (e.g., Japanese green tea) requires additional product protection; in such cases, aluminium-sealed tea bags are used to prevent the tea’s exposure to water.
Tetley continues to innovate in teabag innovation; their modern innovations focus on improving the tea drinkers’ experience of using teabags. In 1994, Tetley released a drawstring tea bag offering tea drinkers an experience free of drips and mess. The drawstring tea bag allowed tea drinkers to squeeze out drops of tea by pulling a perforated tag apart in opposite directions.
After four years of R&D, Van den Bergh Foods further innovated the teabag in 1996; they launched the PG Tips Pyramid bag. This innovation focused on maximising liquor quality with fluid flow, rather than changing the tea quality.
The choice of tea bag material also affects the infusion process and quality. Tea bags have evolved from silk and muslin to sewn gauze, to fibre paper. Now, most tea bags are made from processed hemp or wood pulp, creating a near-perfect infusion.
Today tea bag material must meet many parameters:
- Paper must meet stringent requirements of national and international food and drug laws
- Material must be durable, allowing teabag machines to produce units at high speed
- Material should be free from additives; it shouldn’t impart a taste or odour when used
- Paper should be light in weight
- Material should maintain its strength when wet
- Paper must not be prone to defects, allowing for efficient tea bag production; the ratio of tea bags per kg of paper must be high
- Paper must meet specific requirements of porosity; the pores must enable a quick infusion and retain maximum tea dust
- Paper must be adhesive, allowing both sides of the teabag to be bonded together
The tea bag market was valued at USD $14,810 million in 2020, and is growing at 6.6% CAGR; market analysts expect it will be worth $67,920.8 million in 2028. Several factors are influencing this market growth, two of which are convenience and value for money.
The global instant tea market was valued at $1.4 billion in 2019; it’s projected to reach $2.1 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 6.8% from 2021 to 2027. Instant tea appeals to tea drinkers because of convenience, and consumers exhibit this preference for instant tea in the products searched.
Instant tea benefits the tea market and sales in three key ways:
- Diversifies the tea market, expanding used cases and potential customers
- Allows instant tea to compete with the instant coffee market
- Instant tea appeals to the younger generation of tea drinkers
Brands producing instant tea typically package tea powder in containers, or as single servings.
The large instant tea containers include materials such as cardboard, aluminium, and plastic. Packaging for containers of iced tea generally has an aluminium seal, which keeps moisture from the tea powder granules, and proves product integrity (e.g., shows it’s tamper-free). Instant tea containers are not usually recyclable, which matters to some tea drinkers.
Instant tea, packaged as single servings, increase the production costs that tea companies incur, but such products sell at higher margins. Much of the value that instant tea provides consumers is convenience; a benefit for which many consumers are willing to pay.
Plastic is the material often used in single-serve instant tea packaging. The benefit of using plastic is it prevents water from reaching and spoiling the product. Dry instant tea offers tea drinkers a better blending experience.
However, the downside of such instant tea packaging is that the plastic is not biodegradable. For consumers invested in sustainable packaging, the plastic used in instant tea packaging may not inspire positive attitudes in some consumers.
Ready To Drink (RTD) Tea
The rise of RTD is a tea trend shaping the industry. The global ready-to-drink tea market size was valued at $29.66 billion in 2019 and is anticipated to reach $38.96 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 5.5%.
The United States is one of the prominent countries in the global RTD tea market, and black tea is the greatest contributor to the market by type of tea.
Bottled tea is extremely popular in America and China. Bottled tea is a competitive market in both countries, as bottled tea (e.g., Iced Tea) competes with other bottled tea brands, and soft drinks (e.g., Pepsi).
Packaging trends for bottled tea include the use of plastic tea packaging and prominent branding.
Players in the tea industry entered the lucrative canned drink sector when the technology to stabilise tea in cans was developed. Consumers have a positive attitude to canned tea because the tins are recyclable and convenient.
The packaging of canned tea typically reflects the product and brand. Packaging trends for canned tea include heavy use of colours and clear branding.
Canned tea has proven popular in Asia since the 1980s, and is now popular in North American markets.
Itoen, a Japanese tea company, launched canned unsweetened oolong tea in 1981. The success of canned oolong tea is due in part to the tea itself; oolong tea is stable and tolerates temperatures 50–60°C, reflective of vending machine temperatures.
Other teas are more difficult to bottle. For example, green tea's delicacy makes it difficult to can; canned green tea doesn't naturally retain its quality well. However, including ascorbic acid deters oxidation in canned green tea, and adding vitamin C helps maintain the colour of green tea in cans and plastic bottles. The introduction of these two ingredients (ascorbic acid and vitamin C) has enabled canned tea market growth.
The canned tea market offers a range of tea types (e.g., green, oolong, pu-erh, and black), and has expanded into specialty tea, featuring teas from well-known origins (e.g., Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon). The canned tea segment has expanded to reflect a range of consumer preferences for added ingredients (e.g., milk, lemon, fruit, sugar).
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