Funny how things seem to work in endless loops in business. Something becomes popular, it becomes a success, and that success attracts big business which buys up all the little guys who made the thing popular. As the bean counters take charge, things invariably go stale when they dismantle all that made the thing a success in the first place with their love of profit … the wheel turns as along along comes a guy with passion, to start the cycle all over again. And so it is with Donald Trump and his tea, or the Emperor with no clothes.
First there was a great teaman, Sir Thomas Lipton. He and a handful of visionaries brought tea to the world. That changed a long time ago unfortunately and however much the blandly financially driven corporates who bought Sir Tom’s business insist that nothing has changed, everything has. Apart from his picture that is – that, and his story remain very much the same. The heart of his vision – tea – is irrevocably lost.
The same goes for another great teaman and his descendants. Thomas Twining founded the company that bears his name in 1706. If he knows much about tea, his descendant Samuel Twining must drink it through gritted teeth as he goes about his job as PR person for the corporation that owns the once family operated business. These businesses which once proudly advocated quality, celebrated origin and built their reputations on a commitment to authenticity, have done an about turn. That is a potted history of the tea industry over the past century. Sadly it is where we are now in the cycle.
You don’t need to be a taster to know that especially in tea, cheap things no good and good things no cheap. Just take a look at the price of Ceylon Tea relative to some of the other origins which cater to the corporations and their thirst for impossibly cheap supplies of tea. Ceylon Tea is good, and relatively expensive – if you can call 10-20 cents per cup expensive. I did say relatively but that is a topic for a separate post.
That brings me to Mr. Trump. Business magnate, casino king, and macho TV businessman he surely is, but that does not count for much in tea. Every consumer trend over the past 5 years hinges on authenticity. Call it Statusphere, Post Materialism or simply reverting to more genuine values, authenticity – defined ‘undisputed credibility – is key to what most consumers demand from the products they consume. Along comes Mr. Trump with his Trump Tea.
“Living richly is about enjoying the best of the best. You won’t find a more lavish tea drinking experience in the world than with my exclusive collection of premium blends.” Proclaims Mr. Trump in a misspelled endorsement on his Trump Tea webpage. Regardless of this ode to luxury from a man who symbolizes rich and powerful, the world has moved on. Luxury is no longer about ‘living richly’, and the best of the best no longer has anything to do with champagne and caviar. Quite the opposite, for luxury is about values, taste is as much to do with the ethics, sustainability and story of tea as with its flavour. Importantly, both are inextricably linked with authenticity. In this context, Mr. Trump’s triumphantly materialistic statement, designed presumably by his advertising agency, to make tea drinkers rush to the stores to buy his tea, rings hollow.
Mr. Trump is not alone in seeking to capitalize on the renaissance in tea. A plethora of newly minted ‘tea experts’ have emerged to seize the opportunity. Possibly they may have read ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ once too many times, for behind the beautiful websites, the eloquent descriptions, and the hair raising claims of superlative ‘noses’, supernatural blessings, ancient Greek origins, lies the same mediocrity that has devastated the tea industry and lost – for most people – the enjoyment of nature’s most inspiring and healthy beverage.
Should we care? The dangerous part about all this is that the transition from committed, owner operated business to profit-driven corporation in the early 1900s began a process of intimidation which led to severe exploitation in the tea industry. Prices fell as the dominant brands sparred with growers, encouraged new and cheaper growers, influenced aid and state policies in favour of securing ever cheaper supplies. Yet people have found tea, and learned of its healing properties, its amazing variety, and the inspiration and companionship in a cup of tea. Tea is relatively a cheap beverage – good tea, rich in antioxidants, ethical and genuinely fair – costs about 10% per cup of what you would expect to pay for a latte in most cities.
We simply cannot let the opportunity pass another generation by. A natural herbal beverage, scientifically proven to be healthy and protective against every chronic disease, inexpensive and rich with the potential to lift producing countries out of poverty. It is too important to leave the tea industry victim to predatory corporates and the likes of Mr. Trump.
When you choose your tea, demand that it is real tea (fruit and herb infusions like some that Trump Tea and most other trader owned brands use, are not real tea and do not offer the same health benefits), demand that it is packed at origin (unlike wine, tea does not get better with age, it only absorbs moisture and loses flavour and natural goodness. Most teas that are not packed at source lack both), that is is genuine (real tea is made in the traditional, orthodox manner, unlike CTC tea which forms the majority of teas on supermarket shelves today. CTC is a mediocre tea and it lacks the sophistication, and variety – the essence of luxury in tea – that traditionally made, orthodox teas offer), and that it is ethically and authentically produced (millions of tea producers around the world depend on their crop for survival. When prices are unfairly depressed as they have been for decades by the dominant brands, the money from tea goes into the wrong pockets, benefiting the multinational and other offshore brand owners disproportionately).
It sounds complicated, all this for a good cup of tea. Unfortunately that is the reality of a world where the price of a bar of chocolate consistently rises, whilst its quality consistently declines and its producers receive consistently less for the same effort. Authenticity is the key to unlocking the potential in tea. It means authenticity in the brand’s commitment to the product, it means authenticity in the product itself, in the brand’s commitment to sustainability of the industry and human service. This is nothing to do with how many paid certificates each brand has to its credit. Only genuine commitment and investment in these fundamental aspects can offer authenticity in the taste of tea, chocolate, or coffee. Taste and luxury must have meaning far beyond what the self proclaimed ‘Emperors’ of the tea and other industries could understand. Shielding the reality in beautiful websites, certificates and lofty claims are not the solution.
As the child cried out to the Emperor, you have no clothes on. To really shine, go garb yourself in what really matters.