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Yorkshire Tea’s steady road to cultivating personality through TV and social media is yielding returns with the brewer currently holding the title of Britain’s best-selling tea brand and defying a market decline. Its marketing boss and agency share its success story from regional “underdog” to national treasure and why it’s avoiding ‘maudlin’ Covid-19 advertising.

If there is a single stereotype that holds true about British people, it’s that they truly do love a cuppa. According to the International Tea Committee (ITC), Brits consume 100 million cups of tea per day. That’s 36 billion a year.

Since the UK was placed in lockdown in March, tea drinkers across the nation have adapted by drinking an extra 111,972,000 cups of tea a day.

The number one brand in their basket? Yorkshire Tea – which captures more than 28% of the market. The brand first overtook its main rival, Unilever-owned PG Tips, in the traditional ‘black tea’ category in 2019.

However, though Brits love sticking the kettle on, sales of standard brews are sharply declining. Fueled by a surge in luxury alternatives (silk teabags, anyone?); fruit and herbal blends; and people forgoing milky options due veganism has taken off. Last year, consumption dropped by 7.8bn litres in the UK.

Despite this, Yorkshire Tea has performed against the odds. Amid lockdown, value sales of the brand soared, growing a whopping 16.2% to £35m over lockdown compared with the same period in 2019 – it even outsold Twinings, which saw its value sales rise 1.1% to £31.6m but suffered a 15.5% volume decline. In the US, it is shifting 926% more product versus last year.

For Dom Dwight, marketing director at parent group Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, Yorkshire Tea’s heady success story is down to a clever, slightly tongue-in-cheek marketing strategy as well as the strong tone of voice it’s cultivated on social media.

“The truth is most people aren’t engaged with tea – they shop it in a very habitual way. Most consumers buy the same tea they grew up drinking, so we needed to shake things up a bit and make ourselves more culturally famous to cut through the noise,” he explains.

A ‘proper’ strategy

In 2015, when the brand had just a 14% market share, it enlisted Omnicom agency Lucky Generals to handle creative. The result was its longstanding ‘Proper’ campaign which pits the brand as “a place where everything is done proper”.

To bring this company ethos to life over the years, the advertiser has enlisted famously talented Yorkies like Sean Bean and Michael Parkinson to front TV spots, showing them doing menial jobs around the company’s headquarters and highlighting how even the smallest of tasks are given uncompromising attention.

From a communications standpoint, this “clear notion of properness” at the heart of its strategy has allowed Yorkshire Tea to be more “fleet of foot” in its response to the current Covid-19 situation, says Dwight.

This didn’t just apply to its media planning, but also to the brand’s tone of voice, as Laurence Horner, strategy director at Lucky Generals, explains.

“We came off TV at the start of the pandemic because the range was really restricted, and we didn’t want to spend a lot of money driving people to stores when shelves weren’t fully stocked. We decided early on that our role shouldn’t be the same as other brands. We didn’t want to focus on the maudlin or how dreadful life had become – we wanted to be what tea is, which is a bit of a pick me up in the middle of the day.”

After brainstorming with Lucky Generals, the marketing team quickly developed fun Zoom Yorkshire-inspired backgrounds for people to use as a backdrop on tiresome work calls. Alongside this, it unveiled a special ‘social distancing’ teapot with a six-foot spout.

The company also recruited its official brass band (typically reserved for playing people in and out of its corporate building during events) to travel to those unable to celebrate planned occasions like birthdays and weddings “properly” and belt out a tune.

“As a brand, Yorkshire Tea has a really firm understanding of our role in culture and our ideas. It allowed us to respond to the situation with a big more confidence and speed as a team. Some other clients have found that a lot harder, because they’re trying to work out what they’re all about and how to react,” says Horner.

Spilling the tea on getting social right

As well as TV advertising and stunts, social media has played a huge role in boosting the brand’s profile and growth in recent years.

A cursory glance at its Twitter account shows a brand that is as agile as it is self-aware, reacting to everything from Brexit to Bake Off.

“I still believe TV advertising does 90% of the work,” says Dwight. “It turns the flywheel and social media is the hand that keeps everything spinning.”

Though ill-judged tweets have the potential to land brands in hot water, Yorkshire Tea hasn’t faced too many 'storm in a teacup' situations in the 10 years it’s been active on the platform. But it did recently become a press story itself after it expressed support with Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters.

In June, the business, declared “solidaritea” with BLM as protests broke out around the world in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

The brand took the decision to respond to a tweet from a far-right activist, Laura Towler, expressing satisfaction that the brand had not yet backed the movement. “I’m dead chuffed that Yorkshire Tea has not supported BLM,” she posted, alongside a smiley face emoji.

Yorkshire Tea replied: “Please don’t buy our tea again. We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism.”

Dwight admits it took some time to consider whether it should wade in: “We’re not arrogant enough to think there were lots of people out there waiting to hear what Yorkshire Tea was thinking in that situation but we were conflicted – racism is bigger than a political issue. So the conflict we had wasn’t a question of what we believed, but what to say.

“When a brand speaks out on an issue like that, they have to deal with the issue of motive… so we were cautious and then when we saw that tweet, we knew our silence would be deafening. We had to find the right way to enter the debate.”

Reflecting on the experience as a marketer, Dwight says the brand is beginning to realise that there are certain conversations it can’t stay out of.

“We know now that it’s better to join these conversations on our own terms. But it’s so tricky for us. We don’t see ourselves as a global player, so trying to judge when to join a debate at all is going to continue to be a bit of a challenge for us.”