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The Fountain of Customer Loyalty

Charles Cain - Jun 1st 2010

Happy Customer

Tea as medicine

Tea as lifestyle

Tea as luxury

Socially conscious tea

Why is it that the keys to building customer loyalty are so obvious and yet so few companies do it well? I've read a thousand articles and books on the importance of branding, value, quality, personal service, etc. Any consumer can tell you what they want from a retailer, and most of them will also tell you that the majority of companies do a pretty poor job converting customers into passionate fans. I'm not going to repeat all of the obvious keys to running a good business, but I do want to share what I believe is the Fountain of Customer Loyalty in the tea business: identity.

A customer that can identify personally with your product (or better yet, derives identity FROM your product) is golden. This is also a lot easier to accomplish than you might think.

Without getting too deep into psychology, let's simply agree that our self image is a construct - a collage of facts, attributes and preferences that make us who we are. Professors at Berkley drive Volvos (or these days it would be hybrids I suppose), wear Birkenstocks, have leather elbow patches on their blazers, vote liberal, and read thick, dusty books. Our image of ourselves is much more complex than our stereotypes of others, but without question we identify with specific products and brands. Many of us go one step further and use products or brands to reinforce or communicate our identities.

Some advertising still focuses on the attributes or benefits of a product, but much of the focus has shifted to portraying the TYPE of people that buy a product or the type of lifestyle a product's customers enjoy. Some teens buy from Abercrombie and Fitch because they want to be like the perfect bodied, perfect faced, "popular" models that fill the company's advertising. Other teens would NEVER shop at A&F because they reject the perceived values of the brand.

For most consumers, tea is a commodity product. They are no more likely to identify with their tea as with their dish soap. For these casual tea drinkers, simply trying your tea may not be enough to make the sale much less establish loyalty. Your tea may be better, your service may be exceptional, your online or brick-and-mortar store may be absolutely beautiful, but at the end of the day it's just tea and not worth the extra effort or attention that is required for a casual consumer to become a loyal customer of a single brand.

The key to changing this dynamic - the path to the Fountain of Customer Loyalty - is knowledge. I'm not referring here to the way that tea is grown and processed, the health benefits, or even the story of your company. All of that is good, but it's only the first step. The trick is to understand the individual customer and SHOW them how tea fits their personality, their life, and their identity.

One obvious category of customer is the health conscious. Really there are two types of health conscious customers: Those who see tea as medicine and those who see tea as part of a healthy lifestyle. Those seeking medicine don't want to buy a rare tea and don't really care where or how it was produced. They want to know what it will do for them. The Healthy Lifestyle group identify with the natural beauty and health benefits of tea and find identity in being a tea drinker. Whereas coffee drinkers are often seen as Type-A personalities (driven, aggressive and stressed), tea drinkers are content, balanced and kind.

The luxury consumer, on the other hand, wants rare, valuable, and expensive. For these customers, it's not just about the price, it's also about the story. "Shincha is the first flush of Japanese Green Tea. It is widely considered to be the finest and most expensive green tea in the world, is only available in the spring, and is rarely exported outside of Japan." This story appeals to the luxury buyer and is simple enough to remember and share with their friends. After all, what's the point of buying the most expensive tea in the world if you can't tell anyone about it? These customers derive satisfaction from being able to experience the best this world has to offer. Tea is a FANTASTIC product for this pursuit because it is far less expensive than most luxury items and is also good for you.

The socially conscious consumer is appalled by the conspicuous consumption of the luxury buyer and is much more interested in issues like environmental sustainability, working conditions, and connection to nature. These customers derive satisfaction from acting out their values. Certifications are great, but telling stories from the source countries and building a brand that is seen as socially and environmentally conscious at its very core is more important than the perfunctory head-nod towards Organic or Fair Trade. Starbucks is the largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee in the world, but because their corporate image is still tied to their rapid growth in the 90's and the ubiquity of their 11,000+ US locations, many socially conscious consumers are violently anti-Starbucks and prefer to give their business to local coffee shops.

The "Buy Local" crowd is a perfect example of consumers identifying with a company or even deriving identity FROM the products they buy and the companies they buy from. The Buy Local movement is not about price, quality or service, but rather a romantic vision of community and the perception that big business is impersonal if not maliciously capitalistic.

Other customer types include the experiential, or sensory driven customer, interested in flavor profiles and nuance but not in certifications or health benefits. The culturally driven customer may only be interested in teas from one country. Then there are those who simply love to learn. Fascinating tid-bits of information on the legend or history behind a tea will captivate them. A gift buyer may care nothing for ANY of this, and simply wants help picking out a few products that are likely to be appreciated by someone who DOES care about tea.

Each of these customer types (and others) provide powerful opportunities for developing customer loyalty. To effectively capture their attention, imagination, and dollars, you need to be able to quickly recognize their identity and which characteristics of tea are likely to appeal to them. There is a saying (coined by Voltaire and made popular by Jim Collins) that has been bouncing around the corporate world for about 10 years now: "The good is the enemy of the great." The health benefits, affordable luxury, quality, flavor, history and social conscience of premium tea are all good stories. On paper, put all together, they make tea the power-house beverage and business opportunity that we all love. But in practice, all of these messages become muddled and overwhelming in the mind of the casual consumer who simply sees tea as a commodity product.

To find and capitalize on the Fountain of Customer Loyalty is to master the art of recognizing and engaging each customer with the message that appeals to their preferences, their interests, and their sense of identity. Tea doesn't need to be all things to all people, but it CAN be an exciting discovery that lines your pockets AND satisfies the customer on a very real and personal level. That is the goal, after all. I'm not selling a leaf or a beverage, but an experience and an identity.

Adagio Teas

Voice your opinion about this article on TeaChat!
Dec 8th '09 9:59
I'm working to develop Adagio's first ever physical tea retail shop. To be successful, we need to introduce new customers to the wonders of tea. So what was the experience or information that started your passion for tea?
Chicago, IL
Dec 8th '09 13:07

Best of luck with the new venture.

For me the "green tea addiction" came as a "byproduct" of the interest in Japanese ceramics.

You could say that my strong interest in art early in life lead to me studying ceramics in college, and my studying ceramics very rapidly introduced me to the field of Japanese ceramics, and that interest quickly lead me to the general Japanese traitions and culture, which quickly points directly toward TEA.

Perfectly simple!


Wilton, New Hampshire USA
Dec 8th '09 13:13
I had always liked tea, it was a "comfort" type drink, tea with milk and sugar cured a few hang overs ... But what really started me on a journey was drinking puerh in a shop in taiwan. I figured I'd get some nice tea while I was over there, and after trying very high grade puerh, I was hooked.

So, for a retail shop, I think getting people to see past the teabag and experience the signifcantly large world of type types and styles by tasting teas they might never have heard of before is the key.

From looking in other tea shops, I think being able to see and touch small samples really lets you understand the many varieties of tea. Small ceramic cups with the various leaves and a placard invites exploration.

Obviously, providing well brewed samples can help people get past buying an unknown type of tea, especially when faced with a gigantic selection.
Dec 8th '09 14:41
From looking in other tea shops, I think being able to see and touch small samples really lets you understand the many varieties of tea. Small ceramic cups with the various leaves and a placard invites exploration.

I also agree

A small shop with a very personal ptouch and no pressure to buy anything got me started into tea. They gongfu'd everything with a chinese tea setup, that got me to but the teaware as well. It also was great to talk and look at different teas while tasting. It hels to have the teas extensive background. I also enjoy the full leaf teas as they made for better presentation rather than the 'normal' (ones that you can buy at more expensive grocery stores) loose leaf teas, that tend to be more chopped up.
Now that I think of it, that is the only reason I got to a tea shop instead of buying looseleaf at some generic market, the nice leaves that you can see and try before buying.
And where else are you going to be able to buy a brick or cake of puerh? IMHO, puerh is the one thing lacking from adiago that has prevented me from ordering as typically I get oolongs and greens as something extra alongside the pu when I buy. A display of reasonably priced and drinkable shu puerh cakes can look fantastic in a shop.
Dec 8th '09 16:19
I'd always liked tea in a half-hearted way but then I got hold of an Upton's catalogue and I was hooked - I wanted to try them all! For your shop -samples, tastings, a cookie maybe
Dec 8th '09 17:15
I always liked tea and was intrigued to try different teas. In Japantown SF there were shops that sold excellent Japanese tea that I could learn about. But I really, really got hooked from a traditional Chinese style teahouse where I learned something every time I went, and which included the cultural "couch" traditional to tea. The key was learning all the time: technique, historical practice, trying new teas, etc etc etc. For me the teahouse was a place to spend time and keep trying new things, asking questions from a great teacher, and welcome to bring whatever I needed to do with me to spend even more time trying more teas, learning about gaiwan or gong fu, investigating pots and teaware, etc. The owners and staff loved tea and what they were doing
Dec 8th '09 17:35
Simply stated, what ignited my passion for tea was switching from teabags to whole leaf. Then further fueled by the discovery of oolong. Maybe rather than targeting the non-tea drinker the emphasis should be on the tea drinkers. They already like tea. Now it can be so much better.

Think about it, I bet most of the coffee shop fanatics already were having a morning cup of coffee anyway.

A dump the bag campaign, or bring us your bag and get a discount. Then match up what they are drinking in whole leaf variety. Even if you end up selling Adagio bagged whole leaf, because they like the convenience, you still have a sale and are one step closer.
Southern CA
Dec 10th '09 14:34
Hmmm, 2 things. After drinking an infrequent cuppa for 20 years, I discovered the wide world of tea and teaware. The huge variety of tea, and the Asian influence in nomenclature and in the teaware. So, it was the variety of really good tea and the cultural variety of teaware.
Back in the TeaCave atop Mt. Fuji
Dec 11th '09 10:08
I was seduced by the opportunity to see and smell whole-leaf teas in person the first time I entered a tea shop. I made the typical entry into tea with flavored teas, and migrated away from flavors to explore any and every tea variety I can get my hands on. Flavors are a common gateway for new tea drinkers.

Dec 19th '09 8:33
Mostly, I think it was the fact of me ever giving up for the Big Devil coffee :D.
Nah, but the amazing variety of different teas, the zen-like calmness and, I must admit, the 'oriental' feeling. I was a big japanophile back then.
Dec 29th '09 15:19
I randomly tried an iced green tea from a gas station one day and really enjoyed it (probably because it was loaded with sugar). From this experience I decided to try a hot version from the grocery store. When I got there I saw that there were about 10 choices for green tea alone. I started with the brand that also made the iced green tea that I liked but was less impressed with the hot tea. I naturally went to the internet to look up recommendations and stumbled on more information then I could have ever expected. I read that whole leaf tea was the way to go and once I had my first cup and noticed the difference my passion for tea was started.

From a business perspective, especially in the US, the thing to take away from my story is just how important exposure is. I always assumed I never really liked tea because it lacked flavor and was boring. I had no idea that a teabag was an "inferior" way to drink tea from a flavor perspective. Once I realized that I enjoyed drinking and brewing whole leaf teas I was hooked.

Regardless of my views on Teavana's business practices or tea offerings I think they are doing a great job at exposure. They have stores in the mall where you get a ton of foot traffic and they always have free samples. Every single person that walks by is an opportunity to change their perspective of tea. It gives customers a change to purchase on impulse as well which is not really an option with online sales. For these reasons I think TeaRetailer is an excellent idea. Good Luck!

Edit: I went back and read Laquita's story after posting this. I rest my case 8)
Jan 21st '10 23:10
I started by drinking the tea that came with meals in asian restaurants; then started buying and drinking loose tea, but stayed loyal to a couple of brands that my father introduced me to: jasmine in a yellow box, and ti kuan yin in the red box; and most anything herbal from Celestial Seasonings. I was afraid of the high prices in the fancy tea shops, to spend that much without knowing what I was getting.

It didn't go much beyond that until a job that came with a private office where I could keep an electric kettle and a drawer full of teas, and a serendipitous discovery of a couple of wonderful tea shops in my local chinatown. Then a wander through the cookbook section of the bookstore led to a book on tea, which gave me confidence enough to seek out and try a lot of different teas, find tea forums online, like this one, and now, there is a shelf for teawares and a shelf of teas at home, and a drawer full of teas and an office decorated with more teawares.
Los Angeles, CA
Jan 5th '10 0:16
What ignited my passion for tea was my wanting to kick my coffee habit. I started reading a lot about tea online, found adagio's website, and the rest was history.
Jan 5th '10 11:09
I have been passionate about tea since I was a very little girl. My mom would by me herbal teas. I always loved it and my love of tea has grown. I know that some places have "children's tea" and I think this is an important market because this is a good time to get people passionate about tea for life :)
Jan 6th '10 10:07
I grew up drinking tea occasionally, always from bags, pretty much always black tea. One day somewhere between high school and college, a good friend of mine took me to this little tea shop close to where she lived, and introduced me to white tea. Since that day, pretty much every time I see her is for tea - she's introduced me to bubble tea, for example. I've explored so much both at that tea shop and then venturing outwards - to places like Adagio - once I got to knowing the basics.
Jan 6th '10 16:39
I started dabbling with tea in college because of some friends who were into tea. Never got beyond bags, though, so my relationship with tea was on again/off again.

Then my boyfriend and I went to Teavana and tasted loose leaf tea for the first time. Even though it was initially a small sample of cast iron brewed tea in a plastic cup, it was still delicious and a huge upgrade from the bagged dust that we previously believed was tea. We purchased 2 16oz to-go cups of blended tea for about the same price as 1 cup of Starbucks coffee, fell in love, and have been saving for a cast iron teapot ever since.

I stumbled onto the Adagio website by accident while looking for information about blending tea. Now I'm just waiting for my first Adagio order to arrive. ^_^
Wichita Falls, TX
Jan 6th '10 16:45

Great story! Congratulations and enjoy!! :)
Chicago, IL
Jan 21st '10 22:50
I have loved tea literally since nursery school. My mother used to give me tea (with a lot of sugar, of course, hehe) in her mother's china teacups as a treat. Being a three or four year old girl, I was, of course, enthralled with the flowers on the teacups, and for the next few years, I liked tea both for the taste and for the association with comfort. It wasn't until high school that I became a serious tea drinker, eschewing Lipton for sencha, kukicha, oolong, various herbs, and whatever else I could find in the (unexpected) tea drinker's paradise that is New York City. Now I'm in college, and I still consider tea my number one comfort food, but I also appreciate it for its wide spectrum of tastes, aromas, and colors.
Albany, NY; New York City, NY; or Bath, ME
Jan 22nd '10 0:07
Hmmm I think this is my tea story:

I once saw an article on Digg about tea... you know something to do with an alternative to coffee... it's healthy, whatever... and it had a link to Adagio in it. So I bookmarked it and put that in the back of my mind.

So for the longest time whenever I was at the mall, I always wanted to go into that "Teavana" place... then one day I decided to go in, was "assisted" in picking out and buying some overpriced crap... was annoyed by the experience... and found THE Teavana thread here on TC.

And somewhere along the line there, I remembered my aforementioned bookmark, bought some goodies from Adagio... ba-zing!!

I like tea now.

So perhaps my distaste for Teavana ignited my tea passion.
Jan 23rd '10 23:26
During my senior year of high school, the advanced placement English class took a weekend trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada. While researching what there was to do in Stratford, there was information on one of the guide pages for a tea shop. I had always preferred tea, mostly herbals, but just in tea bags up to that point. My friend and I decided to check out the tea shop. It was a little bit off the beaten path, but the lady who ran the shop was friendly and knowledgeable. We had a great time chatting with her, and both my friend and I ended up with some loose leaf tea. From that point forward, I was hooked.
Cinnamon Kitty
Syracuse, NY
Jan 23rd '10 23:45
I've always drank tea, I'm British!

My passion for tea was ignited through meeting someone with a passion for, Chinese, tea.

I had some loose leaf greens, blacks and oolongs, I thought I knew my stuff. Then I went into a shop which had ten grades of long jing, and da hong pao which cost more than illicit substances, run by a woman who loved tea. I was suckered in instantly. The big teapot was dumped, gaiwan and yixing moved in.

Then the shop shut, she moved to Malaysia and I turned to Teachat.

On the couch
Jan 24th '10 10:08
LOL. Glad we could help support your addiction! :)
Chicago, IL
Jan 24th '10 16:13
For the longest time, tea had been presented to me as unflavored green tea or iced tea. While green tea can be delicious, it is just not my thing. When I went to Vancouver to visit a dear friend, her mother became absolutely distraught at my tea and coffee dislike. My first day there, they sat me down with some absolutely beautiful black tea, a light dessert one, and some Indian baked sweets.

The obsession began.

Through the entire week long trip, tea was what they plied me with for breakfast, tea time, and dinner, along with some herbal tea before bed. I left Vancouver craving Lady Gray.

On a reptile forum, someone brought up tea. I gushed of my love and then the Adagio website was linked to me. The person said loose tea was essentially cheaper, more tasty than the retail teas, even though they provided less caffine. Adagio is what brought me to the REAL world of tea. While I still adore Lady Gray and it is a preferred breakfast tea, the Adagio English Breakfast, Early Gray Bravo, and Irish Breakfast are my teas of choice PERIOD, the InGenui made it for me!

Sorry for the hugely long response but honestly my tea love was spurred by several different areas! Adagio is a huuuuge reason. Put a delicious cup of black tea with plenty of milk and two sugar (MMMM) and it's sure to convert any non-believer! (I've been told I adore tea with 'too much' milk but bah!)

Edited to add: is where I found out about you, just in case you were wondering!
Jan 27th '10 21:30
When I was growing up, tea is what we did. There was always tea available.
When I was in high school I went to China Town with my church group and discovered Jasmine Oolong tea. The other kids bought assorted junk. I bought the tea.
When I was 18, I discovered loose Earl Grey, the first I had ever seen, at The Cannery. My sister and brother got my parents to buy them assorted stuff. I asked for the tea.
We moved to Northern California and my mother discovered Japanese green tea. We then had to have an entire Japanese tea set and eat bean jelly. I loved it.
When I moved out of the house to go to college, my little brother bought me a teapot. He was only twelve, but he understood my passion.
So I can't really say what ignited my passion. It just sort of grew on its own. Tea is an overall aesthetic experience and I am, at least internally, a hedonist and a sensualist. I crave the sensations of tea, all of them, sight, sound, taste, fragrance, and feel.

Long Beach, CA
Jan 28th '10 9:13
Now THAT would make for a break-out advertising campaign for a beverage that is too-often seen as old fashion and boring!

Tea is for hedonists and sensualists. I love it! :)
Chicago, IL
Jan 31st '10 9:51
It all started when my brother came back from a trip from Chicago with three paperbags with "Teavana" written on them, each with 2-4oz of tea. I remember the Rooibos orange was the one that got me addicted. After trying the tea and enjoying it, I made sure that I was going to visit their store next time I was in Chicago. When I visited their store I loved the fact that you can sample and smell tea, which made me buy a lot more than I thought I would. I would also include that the employees were very friendly and added to the experience.

Initial Interest: Blended flavored teas easy for first-time drinkers
Feb 8th '10 20:33
You are in the right forum then! :mrgreen: 10+ years and counting and that is still my mantra! There is simply a never ending variety of teas.
Back in the TeaCave atop Mt. Fuji
Feb 6th '10 20:20
For forty years I listened to tea authorities and read all the books I could find and it bothered me that the words I read and heard were never matched in theh cup of tea I drank. It was the search to make tea and get the maximum flavour that kept my passion going. I knew about teh problems if coffee and they were different with tea.

Ian Bersten
Sydney Australia
Ian Bersten
Feb 7th '10 15:11
My first exposure to tea that I loved was at the local Chinese restaurants as a young child. I would add a metric ton of sugar and just couldn't get enough. I wasn't a huge fan of the food, but I was always excited when the family went because I loved the tea so much. The love of that tea has stuck with me to this day.

I never really liked any of the bagged teas, after I quit drinking soda I spent quite a bit of time trying to find a viable bagged version of the restaurant tea. I failed miserably and eventually I switched to coffee. After many years I got tired of being beholden to caffeine and pretty much stopped drinking coffee in favor of water and lemonade. I stuck with that for a surprisingly long time and then restarted my quest to find a tea similar to my restaurant tea experiences. This time I had the power of the internet on my side and did not fail quite so miserably.

I found a bagged tea that was similar, not nearly as good, but was at least in the right ballpark. It wasn't perfect but I enjoyed it enough that over time it became what I drank all day long. The past few months I was starting to get less enthused about compromise and wanted to find a better match to the local restaurant tea. I ended up tying a variety of bagged teas in the process. I liked a few of them and expanded my daily tea drinking to include them as well.

In my search to uncover a viable home brew for my favorite tea, I found myself more and more interested in learning about tea in general and loose tea in particular. I recently placed my first order for loose tea and am right at the beginning of my tea journey.
Feb 8th '10 17:41
Like many others, I've enjoyed tea for quite some time, but I believe what really got me into it was realizing just how many varieties of tea there were and even more so, how endless the possibilities were when it came to tea blending. Now I find myself on a never-ending quest to try as many different teas as possible!
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