The nation’s tea brands have never had it so tough. Over the past few years, the category has posted year-on-year declines, with the latest figures showing a value and volume slump of 3% and 1.5% respectively [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 22 June]. During this tumultuous period, household brand names have seen sales tumble, with Britons drinking fewer cups than ever before.

But amid these stormy (in a teacup) conditions, one brand has stood head and shoulders above its rivals. Yorkshire Tea, owned by Taylors of Harrogate, posted value sales growth of 66% in the period 2009-2014, with the most recent data showing value sales up 7.3% [Kantar 12 w/e 22 June]. It’s an impressive achievement for the company, which derives 71% of its £131m annual turnover from tea.

Indeed, Taylors has even started to repeat the trick in the ground coffee market, which has suffered from a similar downward spiral to tea thanks to the rise of coffee capsules. Bucking the trend, Taylors’ own coffee sales are up 63.5% in value over the past five years.

So how has Brown managed to achieve this, and how does he intend to sustain momentum?

Brown traces Yorkshire Tea’s recent growth spurt back to a decision taken five years ago, when he decided to take a closer look at pack formats. At the time, Yorkshire Tea was predominantly pushing packs of 80, but most shoppers in the tea category tend to buy bigger packs - 160s and 240s.

“So we made a conscious decision to move more of our promotions to bigger packs and give more attention to those bigger packs in order to increase penetration,” says Brown. The strategy paid off in spades, with the brand enjoying a “big jump” in the number of households buying it.

But the success wasn’t down to pack format alone. Brown points to the company’s “tongue in cheek” TV ad campaigns, which have brought new consumers to the brand. These included sending a Yorkshire Tea van on a tour of America and the ‘Everything stops for Yorkshire Tea’ ad featuring cricket and a brass band.

“Yorkshire Tea used to be considered a bit fuddy duddy, but it’s become quite a cool brand,” says Brown. “We’ve now got lots of young people following us on social media and that’s because through our advertising we’ve tried to appeal to as wide a range of consumers as possible and not just the ‘silver surfer’ consumers we’ve had in the past.”

Tie-ups with the English Cricket Board - Yorkshire Tea is the official tea supplier to the England cricket team - and the ‘Grand Depart’ of the Tour de France, which recently kicked off in Yorkshire, have also helped to propel this regional brand into the national conscience, says Brown.

“The Tour de France was a bit of an investment of faith really,” recalls Brown, who is a self-confessed cycling nut. “We didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but we felt that as a brand it was important that we supported it. The increase in social media activity on the back of it was phenomenal. It paid off really well.”

The company did a lot of sampling on the UK legs of the tour, handing out special packs of Yorkshire Thé. It also launched a yellow jacket packet of coffee named Allez! Allez!, which Brown says has been selling particularly well.

No compromise

But more important than event tie-ups and advertising has been the company’s ability to maintain the quality of its product, while others - as Brown believes - have taken their eye off the ball.

“The quality of tea in the UK has declined terribly in recent years, but one of the values of this business is under no circumstances do we compromise on quality, even if it means taking a little bit less margin on it,” he explains.

To this end, the company has sent tea consultants to estates in Africa to help farmers improve their production techniques and, in turn, the quality of the tea they supply. It’s this sort of investment that’s reflected in the high repeat purchase levels Yorkshire Tea enjoys, claims Brown. “Once they switch, they rarely switch back because of the taste and quality of the product.”

“Yorkshire Tea used to be considered a bit fuddy duddy but it’s become quite a cool brand”

This focus on quality extends to the company’s coffee, with Brown intending to use the same strategy that proved so successful for Yorkshire Tea. The packaging underwent a revamp earlier this year to give it a more modern feel, and the company ran its first mainstream TV ad campaign for the Taylors brand in May under the strapline ‘Welcome to coffee.’ The ad takes viewers on a surreal journey that represents the ‘sensory experience’ of drinking coffee, and was created in response to the “stale world of coffee advertising.” Brown says initial feedback has been incredibly positive.

“Our advertising has been successful because it’s been a bit different. We don’t do what everyone else is going to do - we tend to do the opposite. Coffee is a harder category to advertise, but we’ve made a strategic decision to have a go at it.”

In addition to stepping up its advertising, the company is also exploring coffee NPD, with beans, espresso and capsule products all potentially on the radar.

“One of the main deterrents to people drinking filter or cafetière coffee is it’s messy when you empty it out, so the convenience that you get from a capsule or single-serve product of any kind has been very successful. We’re looking at innovation and different formats for delivering coffee, but the thing for us is making sure the quality is right. With quite a lot of single-serve coffees you do lose a lot of the quality. There are exceptions - like Nespresso - but generally speaking the quality isn’t up to the kind of standard that we aspire to. At the moment it’s certainly one of the things that we’re looking at, but until we get the quality right we wouldn’t launch anything in the marketplace.”

Brown is also keen to innovate in tea wherever possible. Earlier this year, the company launched a range of fruit teas developed with Kew Gardens, with flavours including sweet rhubarb and spiced apple. “We’re trying to build a range of speciality teas as that’s a growing part of the market and people want more variety and a point of difference,” he explains.

The company’s value sales figures certainly suggest things are heading in the right direction, but Brown admits the market continues to be tough and the company isn’t immune to the prevailing winds - in the latest 12-week data, volume sales of Yorkshire Tea were down 3.5% [Kantar]. But he’s cautiously optimistic.

Yes, Taylors will need to keep innovating and trying new things in order to make sure that shoppers stay engaged with its brands, he says. But as long as the company manages to continue to drive trial and get shoppers to try out its tea and coffee, “the future is bright,” Brown is convinced. “Because when they taste it, they tend to stick with it.”


Name: Andy Brown

Job title: MD Taylors of Harrogate

Age: 50

Marital status: married with three kids (15, 17, 19)

Career: First job was on a P&G graduate training scheme, in Newcastle, in 1986. He then worked as operations manager at Mars confectionery before qualifying as an accountant. In 1996, he joined Asda where he stayed for three years. He left the retailer to work for a couple of small food companies before joining Taylors in 2001 as group FD. He became MD in 2009.

Best decision: Joining Taylors of Harrogate.

Best advice: When I joined as FD, Jonathan Wild, then the CEO of the business, said to me “put the people and the product first and the pounds and pennies will take care of themselves.” And he was right.

Hobbies: I’m a mad keen runner and cyclist. But my real passion is cricket.

Daily hot beverage routine: I always have black coffee in the morning - my favourite is Colombian or Kenyan. Then I switch to tea after lunch. I normally have peppermint tea and then Yorkshire Gold with a dash of milk.

TiF or MiF? It’s got to be tea in first, then milk.