Marketing and the 4 Types of American Tea Drinkers
Morning or night. Solo or socially. Tea is a timeless tradition, a drink available nearly everywhere, in virtually every culture. In fact, after water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world.
Yet as familiar as it is to billions of people, tea is often misunderstood and miscategorized. It seems “tea” can mean different things to different people. And even that is changing.
Let’s start with the stereotypes: tea as the opposite of coffee. You drink one or the other, and neither side crosses over.
Coffee drinkers: the Type A stress cases, neurotic go-getters and networkers, always on thanks to nonstop caffeination.
Tea drinkers: introspective, a bit nerdy, always too calm; the ones blowing lightly on their mugs as they quietly watch their coffee drinking cohorts’ eyes spin in circles.
While this perception may play (in all its oversimplified glory) here in the States, broaden your perspective, and a much more complex—and surprising—picture of caffeinated beverages (and their non-caffeinated cousins) starts to emerge. In countries like the UK and India, tea consumption is down while coffee consumption is at an all-time high. In China, a new generation of tea drinkers is displacing the old by valuing convenience over tradition.
In the US, people are drinking tea at a rate unseen since before an infamous party in 1773. Which consumer group is behind the trend? You guessed it: millennials.
In keeping with our demographic research into young consumers’ buying habits, there’s more than one reason for millennial tea mania. Brands would be wise to question their assumptions about some of the primary profiles of modern tea drinkers. For instance:
1. The Health Worshipper
Science suggested it, and media outlets amplified it: green tea boosts your metabolism and helps you lose weight. This positive association—similar to red wine’s supposed heart benefits—stubbornly persists not because it’s been proven, but because it hasn’t been disproven. Taken together with its long history, as well as its wealth of antioxidants and other healthful bioactive compounds, green tea’s status as a “healthy” beverage feels true.
However tea—specifically beverages brewed from Camellia sinensis, the tea plant that also contains caffeine— boasts a plethora of proven benefits aside from weight loss. It may help prevent Alzheimer’s and improve cognitive function, not only in terms of mental acuity but also emotional well-being.
Of course, caffeine provides plenty of perks and giddy feelings on its own, but even herbal teas (infusions that contain no trace of C. sinensis) are frequently thought to offer some kind of peace of mind or calming effect. There’s something relaxing about sipping hot, delicately flavored water.
Tea is often considered as somewhat medicinal, whereas coffee seems to have more in common with cigarettes and alcohol—a “drug” rather than a “remedy.” Tea gets applied to colds, flus, headaches, and nausea and stomach problems. Coffee keeps you up, while tea helps you fall asleep.
The Health Worshipper may not consume it on a daily basis, but keeps a few boxes of sachets in their pantry for when they’re feeling sick or overwhelmed. They may drink tea to support a diet, detox, or fasting regimen. They may look first to homeopathic medicine — which includes tea — before considering Advil, Tylenol, and Sudafed. They may extol the patient, ritualistic practice of brewing tea and waiting for it to cool, explaining that “tea forces you to slow down and savor the moment.”
2. The Ex-Coffee Addict
On the outside, the Ex-Coffee Addict resembles the Health Worshipper except for one key difference: they love coffee. Or rather, they used to, before it inspired digestive issues, panic attacks, and insomnia. Now, tea seems like a more attractive alternative.
Certain teas and infusions can approximate the piquancy, mouthfeel, and psychoactive jolt of coffee. There’s earl grey, matcha, and yerba mate, for example. All three have escalated in popularity over the last decade in the US, right alongside growth in energy drinks and other functional beverage markets.
Other consumers, meanwhile, are switching to tea because it contains less caffeine than coffee, or out of the belief that it contains none at all. They probably think they’re consuming less caffeine than they actually are, and may feel befuddled by the fact that “decaf” doesn’t mean “no caf” and bewildered by conflicting studies that praise or condemn caffeine—is it good for you or bad for you? How much is too much? This sense of confusion pervades the interpretation of labels such as “fair trade” and “single origin,” which may cause harried shoppers to abandon coffee entirely. They may have already wavered looking at that bag’s $14 price tag.
Tea, by contrast, looks cleaner, simpler, and—crucially—less expensive. It has no affiliation to fast food or chains, whereas tens of millions Americans get their coffee fix from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or McDonalds. Tea is also easier to make, and produces less waste than filters or certainly K-Cups. For maturing, eco-conscious consumers already primed toward the beverage for health and culture reasons, tea’s position as a cheaper alternative to coffee makes it an obvious choice.
3. The Cultural Curator
Ritual is also important for the Cultural Curator, but for distinctly different reasons. This type of tea consumer would be the first to tell you that tea is a global drink and that we live in a global society. They may understand their heritage partially through tea, or may want to connect more authentically to one of many tea traditions found throughout the world.
Cultural Curators geek out over rare, hand-picked, and artisanally crafted teas, for which they’re willing to pay a premium. They may frequent tea bars and import loose leaf from specialty stores online. They know the right ways to brew, steep, and drink tea, as well as the proper name for herbal teas (tisanes), and the correct pronunciation of pu-erh—one of many shibboleths among connoisseurs. Or call them hipsters—take your pick.
A Cultural Curator sees this purism justified by tea’s storied past and its threatened future. They regard tea as something tied to family, language, and a multitude of other cultural traditions and practices that often disappear through American assimilation.
As Kristin Surak writes in “Making ‘Japanese’ Tea,” “Tea is sometimes seen as a way for second- and third-generations Japanese-Americans to learn how to be Japanese.” US immigrants from China, Tibet, Myanmar, India, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Germany, the UK, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil similarly look toward their country’s tea ceremony as a concrete way to appreciate and preserve an element of their cultural identity.
Tea also has a social function, especially in the Muslim world, where the consumption of alcohol is considered haram. Nonetheless, that probably doesn’t stop the Cultural Curator from drinking tea cocktails—or even ayahuasca. Unlike the Heath Worshipper, the Cultural Curator has an academic, ethnographic interest in tea rather than a wellness-related one.
4. The (Much) Bigger Question: Iced Tea Drinkers
The bulk of this post has been about the hot, brew-it-yourself kind of tea. But surprise: brewed tea comprises just a sliver of the overall US market.
About 85% of tea consumed in America is iced. Not everyone—and in fact, very few of us—actually make their own iced tea. The vast majority buy it premixed and stored in a refrigerator. The ready-to-drink category dominates the tea industry, and its features muddle lessons learned from other categories.
For instance, some cans of iced tea contain as much sugar as an equivalent serving of soda. And sweet tea is a proud Southern—not Chinese, not Japanese, not British—tradition. Unlike all other genres of tea, this one was born in the US.
Tea, something so seemingly simple, remains one vast, mysterious, complex force to be reckoned with—and thoroughly enjoyed in the process. And judging by its many new and lifetime loyalists, it’s only picking up steam.