Feb 12th 2010 Issue
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Packaging for Premium Teas

Charles Cain - Feb 12th 2010

How do you package tradition, culture and nature?

Young Ms. Sencha - irrelevant to the article but oh so cute!

Adagio's grocery packaging with UV blocking lid

One of the first recommendations I made upon joining the team at Adagio was that we add a "Master's Collection", or a line of super-premium teas to cater to the connoisseur and compete with the Specialty Tea Industry's high-end brands.

Adagio has always done an excellent job offering tremendous value to the customer, and in terms of sales volume I wouldn't trade the Adagio tea collection for any other. That said, as we enter the brick-and-mortar, Specialty Tea Shop business, I want to make sure that we carry as much credibility with the die-hard connoisseur as we do with the casual tea drinker. I don't want ANYONE to be able to say they have "better" teas! Carrying, for example, a Pu Erh comprised exclusively of golden tips that sells for over $15 an ounce will move Adagio into a market we have not previously tried to compete. It also increases the prestige of the rest of the collection and makes what is currently our most expensive Pu Erh seem quite reasonably priced at $3.50 an ounce.

My proposal was to carry 10-20 premium, single harvest, hand made, limited edition, classical loose leaf teas which represent the very finest available. For this collection, price is not the question - it's all about quality. Adagio's management agreed and in the next few weeks you'll see the first eight teas of the new Master's Collection online at www.adagio.com

The next question - and the topic of this article - is identifying the right packaging for these teas. To do this, I'd like to start by answering a few key questions posed to me by our resident Marketing and Graphic Design Guru. (This lady named her daughter Sencha! How's that for establishing credibility as a tea marketing guru?)

Q: Who is the target audience?
A: There are two target audiences who often want totally different things. The first is REAL tea connoisseurs who know what they are looking for and are comfortable buying a $200 tea from someone that doesn't speak English. The second audience is mid 20's to mid 40's, mixed gender, well educated, and sophisticated. These are people who like the natural, healthy, environmentally friendly ethos of Whole Foods but also like the fact that Whole Foods is extremely clean, well lit and meticulously merchandised. In other words, highly produced and staged "trendy natural". :) One audience "gets it", the other has the money and a self image that wants to get it or at least look like they do.

Q: What is the message?
A: Premium, small lot, hand picked and processed, traditional, authentic, exotic... In a world of tea blends that are Western representations of the traditional beauty and romance of tea, these are the real deal. If the loose tea at Whole Foods is Panda Express, this stuff is like having dinner in China Town at a place where no-one speaks English.

Q: What does a connoisseur look for that other tea drinkers don't?
A: Casual drinkers are into obvious flavors and just enough "authenticity" to make them feel like they're being different/healthy/trendy. These are people who love and are proud to know the up and coming pop musicians. They think they are on the cutting edge. Connoisseurs are into deep niches and nuance. The shape of the leaf in a Wuyi or the Muscatel notes in a first flush. Connoisseurs "like" nuances and flavor notes that might not even taste "good" to them because they are supposed to be there and they are the sign of an excellent tea. Continuing the music analogy, these are people who are into obscure niche bands or sit with their eyes closed following the cellist in a piece of classical music. They appreciate the nuance and are bored by the obvious and easy.

Q: Describe the proper aesthetic of "premium" tea packaging.
A: Natural, rough, traditional, classical, old, and CLEAN. There are no inclusions (fruits, flowers, etc.) in these teas so it's all about the leaf and/or the garden. For me the balance is like a rough-hewn dining room table carved from a single giant tree with all of the rings and rough edges intact. But that beautiful, natural table is displayed in the pristine cleanliness and meticulously staged setting of a brightly lit William Sonoma store.

Q: What type of marketing copy do we include?
A: Skip the marketing copy. Just describe the tea! For example, here is the cupping description for one of these beautiful teas (you'll have to check the website in a few weeks to see which one): The aroma rising from the wet leaves is bright and brisk with incredible high notes that awaken the palate. The flavor of the warm, golden-green liquor is softly sweet and floral, lingering on the tongue like the sensory memory of lilac, lemongrass and sunshine. We highly recommend a second steeping, which will fully unfurl the leaves and floral character of this exceptional tea.

Q: What material do we use?
A: This is a tough one. A true connoisseur is fine with simple packaging so long as it is air-tight and includes a detailed description of the tea's origin, the flavor profile and brewing instructions. The "luxury customer" will want to see premium packaging to go along with the premium price tag. This is especially true if the tea is to be given as a gift. We have the option of doing inexpensive, foil, zip-lock pouches but the minimum quantity for printing the material is 50,000 pouches. Alternately we could do a custom tin with minimums more in the range of 2,000 pieces. The luxury or gift buyer wants a tin, the connoisseur might prefer a pouch... I'm guessing we'll start with tins given the lower minimum order requirement and see how it goes.

(NOTE: we could, of course, do very simple packaging with simple printed or even hand-written labels like so many independent tea shops, but when you're selling a tea that is worth over $200 a pound I'd prefer a little higher degree of professionalism.)

So there's my first pass at answering these questions. I'm actually posting this article before I share my responses with our Guru because I'm really curious to hear from you - our target audience. What am I missing? What do you want to see? What do you expect? What have you been impressed by? What have you hated? In the coming weeks I'll share details on what we decide and why. Thanks for your feedback! :)

Adagio Teas