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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 11:07 GMT
India hopes to revive the cuppa
Jagmohan Singh Raju
Mr Raju thinks tea needs to be made more glamorous
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By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter
line

Selling tea to the British ought to be as easy as selling sun hats to the Spanish, or beachwear to the Brazilians.

The cup that cheers has been part of British life since the early 17th century.

But for those that depend on the trade, these are lean times.

India, the world's biggest tea producer and source of every third cup worldwide, has become concerned at slipping consumption in some of its key export markets, notably the UK.

This week, Tea Board India, the state agency that represents the industry, launched a global marketing push in the hope of boosting exports by about 50% within five years.

How likely is it to succeed?

Tea market goes cold

India's tea industry is not exactly in crisis, but it has certainly seen livelier times.

India's top tea markets
Prices on the domestic market, which slurps up more than three quarters of its annual output, have dropped sharply over the past couple of years.

But exports, which have tended to hover around the 200 million kilogrammes per year mark, fell as low as 180 million last year.

India's traditional dominance of the world tea market, it seems, has been eroded.

Traditional trading partners such as Russia and the UK have turned increasingly to cheaper sources of supply, and low-cost producers like Indonesia and Vietnam have geared up to meet that demand.

British invasion

Jagmohan Singh Rahu isn't daunted.

As director of tea promotion for Tea Board India in London, Mr Raju is at the spearhead of a marketing campaign intended to power Indian exports as high as 275 million kilogrammes by 2007.

The Tea Board has picked out Britain and the Middle East - second-tier export markets, way behind its main partner, Russia - for special attention.

"We are not going to spend a lot of money on advertising," Mr Raju says.

"Instead, we are concentrating our attention on special promotions, which aim to create in a more subtle way a strong image for our tea."

Quality, not quantity

Mr Raju's approach is unashamedly elitist.

"We cannot really compete on price, so we have to compete by dominating the top quality segment of the market," he says.

Victorian tea drinkers
Back before gratification was instant
The Tea Board has signed cooperation deals with upmarket retailers, including Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, which is rolling out a programme of Indian-themed events this spring.

At the Savoy, one of London's swankiest hotels, an Indian tea festival is currently under way, and Mr Raju plans to open a dedicated Indian tea bar later this year.

Mr Raju realises that Harrods and Savoy are not exactly mass market; "It's at Sainsbury's that you make the real sales," he says.

But he is not hoping to create new sales channels, instead hoping that some of the chi-chi Savoy glamour will rub off on the product.

Take it slow

The other prong of the strategy is playing on tea's strengths.

Previous attempts to burnish the image of tea have tried to play down the fact that it is not a drink for someone in a hurry.

This time, in cooperation with the Tea Council, a marketing body funded by the Tea Board and other producers' clubs, he is hoping to position tea as a soothingly natural product.

Main tea producers
A lot of advertising has recently shifted over to trumpeting tea's health-giving properties - it is zero-calorie, rich in heart-boosting oxidants, and even supposedly good for the teeth.

And by making a virtue of the fact that a good cup of tea requires patience, Mr Raju hopes to stress its qualities as a social drink.

Ageing market

Whether this strategy makes sense is open to question.

Part of the reason that British tea consumption has waned so sharply - from 46 grammes per person per week in 1989 to just 32 grammes now, according to a recent survey - is that it is just too much bother for most people.

Alice in Wonderland
Don't you have any Pepsi?
Although tea is still Britain's most popular drink, with a roughly 40% "share of throat", its core market is ageing fast.

In a country increasingly focused on convenience and instant gratification, a marketing strategy based on quality and refinement may fall on deaf ears.

Nor are partners such as the Savoy or Fortnum & Mason necessarily the best way to tap into the zeitgeist.

Coffee culture

But maybe it is cleverer than it appears.

Mr Raju reckons that Britons barely notice tea: the very ubiquity of the cuppa has reduced it to the role of dreary staple, rather than object of desire.

Tying up with smart names like Selfridges and Harrods may not shift more product straight away, but it could start to move it subtly upmarket.

Mr Raju draws comfort from the extraordinary resurgence of coffee, until recently just another hot drink.

Now, thanks to adroitly upmarket positioning, coffee has become almost notoriously desirable, commanding prices to match.

"This is the next big thing for Indian tea," Mr Raja says.

"Already, we are producing more speciality teas - flavoured teas, decaffinated tea, even single-estate teas."

Double decaff skinny Darjeeling, anyone?

See also:

25 Mar 02 | Business
India plans tea campaign
08 Mar 02 | Business
Indian tea growers push 'quality'
05 Mar 02 | Business
Kenyan tea prices fall again
01 Feb 02 | Business
Sri Lanka tops tea sales
29 Jan 02 | Business
Bangladesh tea exports fall
19 Dec 01 | Business
Falling demand hits Indian tea
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