Top Of The Tea

Taking the Nestea Plunge is different than it used to be. For years, the brand based its RTD market presence on its “Cool” line – a sweet mixture that contained more high-fructose corn syrup than actual tea – but don’t look for it today. Coca-Cola recently took the product off the shelves and replaced it with something sleeker and decidedly more tea-like.

The new Nestea comes with cleaner tea flavor and a 50 percent boost in antioxidants, but the brand’s image has changed just as much as its formula. Nestea traded an evil-looking (and sometimes skeletal) snowman mascot for straight-walled bottles and clean labels that focus the customer’s attention on tea leaves.

That move came about after the company did research that found that Nestea had fallen behind changing trends in the RTD tea category.

“Our perception as innovative and modern had started to slip,” said associate brand manager Carl Henrickson.

Nestea’s not alone. The brand’s straight-walled bottles and high-end, natural, whole leaf ingredients is only the most recent rebranding and reset at the top of the $1.5 billion (and growing) RTD tea sector that’s pumping cash into the hands of beverage companies and clever retailers alike. The segment has nearly doubled in the last three years. Consumers found a new interest in lower calorie and healthier beverages and tea has become a pop-culture touch-stone. Those shifting trends first benefitted cutting edge startups like Honest Tea and Sweet Leaf, who used high end ingredients and an upscale fell to push their products out the door in ever-growing volumes. Coca-Cola currently owns a stake in Honest, but acquisitions can only carry a company so far, and the big tea brands – Nestea, AriZona, Snapple and Lipton – have all seen fit to re-jigger themselves in the face of a changing market.

The brands have approached that re-jiggering with different timetables, and from different angles. Nestea stuck Cool so deep in cold storage that they removed any reference to the product from nesteacool.com, but Lipton preserved Brisk – their Cool equivalent – selling it alongside a premium, glass packaged line. Snapple also launched a parallel, premium tea brand to accompany their sugar-laden core product, and AriZona…. Well, they’re playing their next step close to the vest.

The New York-based independent had the luxury of being ahead of the rest of the pack – way ahead. As the brand that picked up on the iced-tea excitement Snapple created in the early 1990s, AriZona broke ground by bringing green tea to mainstream American consumers in 1996, and planted their flag on a hill that it would take other major tea brands a decade to notice.

Since then, the company has added more variants on green, black, white and herbal teas, as well as a handful of sodas, flavored waters, energy drinks and smoothies. As a result, the brand hasn’t had to hit the reset button to fit the current market trends. In fact, according to company spokeswoman Leigh Parrinello AriZona hasn’t really changed its methods. Ever.

“I think that we just do our own thing. They love what they do here… They’re still passionate about it.” Parrinello said.

Despite that persistent passion, the company appears to be poised to take some kind of new angle on the tea category this fall.

AriZona hasn’t released a new RTD tea product since January 2007, when the company added a single mixture of black and white tea in a 24 oz. can, and Parrinello said the company plans to launch new lines in September. How many, or what they might be, the company’s not saying, but their web site entices customers to be ready for “Bold new flavors [and] surprising packaging innovations.”

Some of those “bold new flavors” might not be so new. A side effect of the company being so far ahead of the tea category is that not all AriZona products found a receptive consumer when they released it. The RX line of herbal teas, for example, included five functional flavors when it hit the market in 2000 – long before vitaminwater caught fire with American consumers. The line survived, but only after the company dropped three flavors that consumers might be more interested in today. Similarly, Arizona launched a short-lived red tea in 2004 – something that may be better suited for the market now.But AriZona wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for Snapple. Arizona founder Don Vultaggio told Time Magazine in 2004 that he got the idea to start a tea line when he was trying to sell a few cases of beer to a retailer, and a Snapple truck backed up to the store.

Today, the contents of that truck would include Snapple’s 15-variety super premium teas. The glass-packaged line – started in 2006 and completed last year – features lightly-sweetened black teas, as well as green, red, and white teas with and without fruit flavors. Wendy Frye, a marketing director with Snapple, said the company created the line after market research found that consumers sought beverages that boasted health benefits.

“In this particular line, the functional benefit and the tea type were more important than the overall product,” she said – something that’s evident in the line’s packaging.

Most Snapple packages scream the brand name. Not so with the super premium line. The variety of tea appears as the largest script on the front of the bottle, and the Snapple logo sits jauntily off high and to the left – almost appearing as an afterthought.

Despite the line’s quiet brand presence – or maybe because of it – Snapple departs from other tea giants. First, they offer RTD red tea. Second, they take a different angle on black tea. Instead of hocking generic black tea with varying fruit notes and levels of sweetness, Snapple offers the simple, classic flavors of Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Orange Pekoe.

All this change in the tea category could open new opportunities for retailers, as they can segment their tea shelves to target a broader spectrum of customers. Some consumers want a sweet drink, some want tea-based antioxidants, and some want a bottle of the kind of tea they might brew at home. Retailers can maximize their tea revenue by finding the right mix of tea products in their store – which is something Lipton and Snapple would like to help them with.

Frye suggests that retailers arrange all their Snapple products – whether tea or fruit drink – in one place “to get the full family look.” Lipton suggests a similar tactic, according to Christiane Paul, marketing director for the Pepsi/Lipton partnership. She said the partnership offers a variety of planograms to stores that cluster the brand’s tea lines together – though those lines are marketed to very different audiences.

“We knew there was a group of consumers out there that really liked clean pure tea with high tea credentials,” Paul said. “What makes them special is just their knowledge about tea and… their more health conscious behavior.”

To reach that consumer, Lipton reformulated its “Original” line last year, and reintroduced it as “Pure Leaf.” The reset plays up the drink’s “tea credentials,” according to Paul, by stripping out the HFCS and cleaning up the bottles’ appearance. The old bottles included the Lipton brand name amid an ice-like pattern in the glass. The new bottles maintain the same shape, but with a smooth, unblemished surface. Now the packaging relies on the label – which features the words “Pure Leaf” larger than the Lipton logo – to communicate the brand’s message.

Image aside, the partnership has also added green tea to a traditionally all black line – something that plays directly into the modern, health-seeking consumer.

“Green tea has been around for a gazillion years and has been known for having all kinds of great health properties,” Paul said.

But, Paul said, not all mainstream American consumers are acclimated to the taste. To broaden the audience, the Lipton/Pepsi research and development department added honey and orange notes to the brand’s two green tea varieties. Nestea took a similar approach, adding orange and lime to their green tea flavor.

But Lipton still offers a total of three lines. Lipton’s Brisk will capture consumers just looking for flavor. Their core line boasts high antioxidants, and Lipton’s high-end tea drinkers, the company hopes, will reach for Pure Leaf.

The customers that do reach for Pure Leaf, though, may not be the same crowd that reached for a Brisk in decades past, according to Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A.

Simrany said new, younger consumers are flooding into the tea market as they leave the soda segment, searching for a better use of their caloric intake. To reach those consumers, the biggest companies in the category “are doing some tremendous things,” Simrany said, but added that tea has already been something of a rising tide.

Tea rooms have sprouted across the U.S., growing from about 200 to about 2,400 in just ten years. Additionally, Simrany said, smaller beverage companies like Honest Tea and Sweet Leaf Tea have cut a path into more sophisticated RTD teas.

“They’re comfortable taking uncomfortable positions, sometimes,” Simrany said. “After they open the door, others want to run in.”

And Simrany said he expects tea’s rise to continue – though he admits he’s biased. Some corners of the tea segment haven’t been fully mined, he said. The large firms have only scratched at traditional teas – something that the Teas’ Tea brand is exploring. And Suntory, he noted, is packaging teas with “all the appearance of a Red Bull approach.”

“I like what I see going on out there,” Simrany said, “and I think it has a long way to go.”