Tetley Tea Keeps Changing With the Times

Ads have evolved dramatically over the years

In the wide world of corporate bromides, “evolve or die” is one of the most enduring. It holds true for e-commerce. It certainly applies to personal electronics. And apparently, it’s also true for tea.

Make that Tetley Tea. While tea leaves themselves have changed not at all in 4,000 years of consumption, these 1957 and late 2013 ads show just how flexible this heritage brand—now in its 177th year of business—has had to be. “There’s an interesting insight in both of these ads,” noted Jeff Curry, group creative director of the Sterling-Rice Group and a veteran tea marketer. “They both talk about the tea bag, but in the first one they’re using their cultural experience as a reason to trust them, and in the second they’re taking the formal tea experience as a canvas for a lighter, fresher tea story.”

After World War II, Joseph Tetley & Co. faced a difficult decision. The tea bag (an American invention of 1904) was catching on, if slowly. The convenience item accounted for a mere 5 percent of Tetley sales during the 1930s. Nonetheless, in 1953, Tetley decided to proceed with mass production of “tea packed in small bags for immediate use in a pot,” reported one U.K. publication, a bit suspiciously.

Tea bags found a warmer reception in the U.S., but Tetley was still left with the problem of reconciling the new invention with the weight of tradition. The result was this 1957 ad featuring Albert Dimes, better known as “Mr. Tea.” Looking every bit the consummate Englishman, Dimes’ role wasn’t just to talk about the 600 teas he tasted every day but to dispel the “quaint prejudice among the American upper classes against tea bags,” to quote the ad. As Curry observed, “The Englishman meant credibility. They brought him in to counter any argument that there was a disparity in tea quality.”

In so doing, Tetley was also evolving with the times, deftly adjusting its core product to stay in step with changing tastes and habits. The gambit worked. Today, 70 percent of tea in the U.S. (and 85 percent in the U.K.) is brewed with tea bags.

As Curry points out, the tea category has continued to change, fragmenting into endless specialty varieties that have left Tetley with a new challenge. “It’s a massive system in which to differentiate. Everyone is trying to out-authentic each other,” Curry said.

These days, with a plethora of high-end teas on the market, it’s no longer easy for Tetley to trot out a Mr. Tea and hold the English high ground. Instead, the brand is again trying a different approach, as this 2013 ad shows.

Tetley’s new Black & Green blend uses the former’s mellowness to temper the bitter taste of the latter—which Americans now drink 10 billion cups of each year. While shifting product focus, Tetley has also shelved its old-school positioning in favor of showing a consumer simply enjoying her tea. The ad, Curry said, “is much more individual and introspective—it’s not only defining the category, but the moment. It’s not as formal, nor taking itself as seriously. Tetley’s loosened up.”

In other words, evolving—once again.