Kulov logoWe just completed our annual Tea Lovers Festival, which was held May 13-15 in Los Angeles. It was our biggest and best event to date – with over 1,200 tea lovers participating in tea tastings, studies, and labs, as well as visiting and purchasing tea products at our popular Tea Marketplace. This year, the size of our Educational Programming was much bigger – more comprehensive, yet more focused – and that resulted in a 30% higher capacity attendance than in 2010. But even with the success and rave reviews our tea festival garnered and with the continued interest and support from the tea-loving public, the tea industry is yet to jump on this “marketing bandwagon” and allocate bigger budgets for both sponsoring and participating in our event.

So perhaps the question of “What is a tea festival?,” which I brought up in my last post, as it’s frequently asked by the general public, should also be addressed to the tea industry itself – I guess what we do is rather new and unique to tea businesses as well.

Tea festivals are not only celebrations of tea culture, but ultimately “consumer shows.” More specifically, our Tea Lovers Festival is a collective marketing platform for tea companies to promote their businesses, showcase and test products, and directly communicate with the tea consumer about their brand. This is done through our Educational Programming – where a tea purveyor could teach a tea workshop, give a lecture / presentation, or administer a focused tea tasting – or through our Tea Marketplace – where a company could showcase and even sell their tea-related products.

As marketing events, tea festivals should not really be produced by tea companies or tea houses, as that creates the dangerous dynamic of favoring themselves over the other participating tea purveyors and of using the event as obvious self-promotion. They should instead be undertaken by a neutral party, which gives all participants equal exposure and marketing opportunity. In addition, through my experience of working with the tea industry for the past few years, I’ve observed that most tea companies – even the large, established ones – don’t really have a savvy and comprehensive marketing strategy. Let me elaborate a bit.

Tea companies usually spend ALL of their annual marketing budgets on catering to the trade. And that’s very necessary – they need to sell their products through retailers, restaurants, hotels, and so on. However, even though this strategy results in immediate cash flow via large product orders, by allocating marketing funds only for the trade, tea companies leave the rather important consumer marketing in the hands of the retailers. I’ve been working in branding and marketing for over 25 years and this model not only limits long-term profits, but hands over control of a company’s brand image to somebody else. Plus, in the age of online shopping, social networking, and other technologies that allow direct access to the consumer, this marketing model seems somewhat old-fashioned and out-of-touch.

So as the lines between trade and consumer inevitably continue to blur, the tea industry needs to update their marketing strategies and take control of their brands (and profits) through educating and marketing not only to the trade, but also directly to the tea consumer. However, the experience of drinking tea is ultimately a personal and intimate one; therefore, no Facebook, Groupon, or any other such innovative outlet could be a sufficient substitute for a real, in-person interaction with the tea community. And that’s what our Tea Lovers Festival and Tea Bus Tours really provide – a unique, grassroots, interactive marketing platform for tea companies and entrepreneurs. So I urge the tea industry to “turn over a new (tea) leaf” during this coming year and allocate bigger budgets for education and consumer marketing, so we finally have the necessary and much-needed financial support for our next tea festival and related programming. Ultimately, what we do is promote what the tea industry does, but a healthy and vibrant tea industry with an educated tea consumer is good for everyone involved and perhaps the true route through which tea drinking in the U.S. would catch up to the levels of the rest of the world.