Tea, with an Ecological Approach

Writing Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea – Insights Into Communication From Why This Way


This post is inspired by my April 2010 post, Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea.  I also considered my post Truthfulness: Tea Companies: Be Cautious With Claims of Uniqueness, while writing it.

The catalog descriptions of a tea are a key element of tea marketing, and they are also a key point of focus for shoppers looking to buy tea.  Since writing my original post in 2010, I have learned a lot more not only about tea, but also about writing and communication.  I want to share some of my deeper insights that I have gained from juxtaposing my continued exposure to tea catalogs and sampling of teas with my experience in Why This Way, a consensus-based belief system that focuses on clear communication.

I hope that this post can be useful both to tea drinkers and to people who buy tea, as well as to companies looking to market their tea more effectively.

Screenshot of RateTea showing commercial description of a tea

RateTea includes a snippet of a tea’s commercial description (complete for brief descriptions) for the purpose of commentary.

The description above, from Rishi Tea, of a masala chai blend that is top-ranking on RateTea, is an interesting example of a commercial description that I object to now more than I did a couple years ago.  The commercial description shown above is out-of-date and has been changed by Rishi (and updated on RateTea), and I like the way in which they changed it, but I still have one small quibble with it.  You’ll find my full analysis of the change and my continued objection below.

My Early Experiences With Catalog Descriptions of Tea

Pretty early on in my forays into the tea world, well before I wrote that original post, I had a sense that I liked some companies’ descriptions of their teas better than others.  On the one hand were companies, like Upton Tea Imports, which had brief descriptions of their teas that I found described the teas quite accurately, fitting with my experience of drinking the teas, and on the other hand were other companies whose descriptions I felt either did not mesh with my perception, or in some cases, contained little to no useful information at all.

I also noticed that, with the exception of foreign companies which had clear language barriers, the tea companies with the worst descriptions were ones whose teas I tended to like least.

The characteristics of the sorts of descriptions I like most have changed little since my original post.  In my opinion, the best descriptions:

  • are concise, avoiding excessive words that communicate little information.
  • nearly always contain information about what flavors, aromas, and other qualities to expect in the tea.
  • may contain or reference brewing instructions.
  • usually describe the tea’s origins, and often mention how it is produced, such as distinguishing pan-fired from steamed green teas, mentioning the cultivar used, or discussing any peculiarities or distinguishing features of production.
  • may make analogies to other teas, especially more common ones.
  • avoid weasel words, highly subjective language, or overreaching claims, especially universal claims of quality, or claims about how the reader of the description will perceive the tea.

I want to explore this last point in depth because it is the point on which my thinking and viewpoints have evolved most since writing my original posts.  Since writing the original post, I also created an article on RateTea about Weasel Words in Tea Descriptions and Marketing, which I recommend reading if you want to understand this topic thoroughly.  But there is something from outside the tea world that has also influenced how I think about these descriptions.

Why This Way and Insights Into Communication

In 2012, a group of my friends and I founded a group that become Why This Way, a consensus-based belief system and organization which I (but not all in the group) consider to be a religion.  The cornerstone of this group is a system of rules of communication and a process for following the rules, both of which are continually evolving.  The rules are designed to facilitate respectful and truthful conversations between people from widely disparate belief systems, and so far, they seem to be working pretty well.  People from widely different faith backgrounds, including Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, Jews, and one Muslim and one Hindu have joined our discussions and contributed to the development of our system of beliefs and practices.  We have been able to have fruitful and positive discussions of issues that normally evoke strong feelings, and embrace the fact that we have different viewpoints without the differences causing any problem for the functioning of our group or our ability to reach consensus on points we care about.

Why This Way symbols like stars on a midnight sky

This graphic, showing the symbol for Why This Way repeated like stars in the night sky, was created by Sylvia Odhner, who also does the graphic design for RateTea and maintains the webcomic Think Before You Think.

One of the key aspects of the rules of communication is that they require people to speak in such a way that more clearly identifies the line between what is agreed by all present to be objective, vs. the speaker’s subjective opinions or perspectives.  For example, I believe in God, but because not everyone present in the group does, I could not make statements about God or implying the existence of God, without using an I statement.  So, I could say: “I believe in God.” or “I believe God loves us.” but I could not say “God exists.” or “God loves us.”  Another prohibition in the rules is against making statements about another person’s thoughts, intentions, or motivations.  Instead, we can only talk about a person’s words or actions.  So I cannot say: “He wants us to change this rule.” but I can say: “He told me that he wants us to change this rule.”  One of the intentions of this rule is to curb the phenomenon of thinking we know what another person is thinking, which often leads to misunderstandings in discussion, and instead keep the discussion focused on things that we actually have direct experience with.

When I became more experienced with the rules of communication in Why This Way, I began to notice numerous ways in which the written and spoken communications around me in my daily life broke the various rules of our group.  One of the places I’d frequently see the rules broken was in advertising and marketing, including in the commercial descriptions of teas by tea companies.  Interesting, even though I wrote my first post about tea descriptions almost two years before the founding of Why This Way, I have noticed that the descriptions that fit more closely within the rules were ones that I have always tended to like, whereas the ones that more egregiously broke the rules were ones that I have always tended to dislike.  There is a great deal of overlap between the use of Weasel Words too, and the breaking of the rules of communication.

Here are two of the most egregious examples:

  • “You’ll love this tea” – This statement breaks the spirit of Why This Way’s rule against making a statement about another person’s thoughts, because it’s telling another person how much they will like a certain tea, without any information about the person.  It also breaks the rule about stating something as fact that is uncertain.  The person writing the commercial description has no way of knowing how the person will respond.  I personally find these sorts of statements a bit abrasive or even invasive, like they are telling me what my tastes are.  My reaction when I read this is a defensive one: “You don’t know me, you don’t know what my tastes are, don’t tell me what I will or will not like!”  This sort of reaction often makes me feel less favorably towards the company writing it.
  • “Best” – Personal tastes are hugely variable, and I think it is really problematic to make a universal claim that a tea is the “best” in any category, without referring to some more objective measure.  For example, I have no problem with companies saying that a tea is a “best seller” in their catalog, or that it won a certain award, or that it is best rated on their website (or on a third party website like RateTea or Steepster), or even that it is a personal favorite of the company’s tasters.  The use of a label like “best” without clarification would break Why This Way’s prohibition against stating something as fact that is uncertain, and it would also break the prohibition against exaggerating.

I think that the way of communicating described in the rules of communication has many compelling advantages, not only for speaking and writing but for reading and listening.  I’ve found that by learning to communicate within the confines of these rules, and use these rules as a reference when reading or listening to others, I’ve noticed numerous benefits, including:

  • A greater ability to discuss controversial issues without offending people with different viewpionts.
  • A greater ability to discern the truthfulness in various statements, even when I know little or nothing about the topic itself.  (This ability is of particular interest when reading marketing material from an unfamiliar company.)  This is in large part due to an increased ability to identify when people are speaking from experience, vs. speculating or repeating something they were told, by how they chose to word statements.

I think these same lessons could be immensely useful in applying both to writing and reading commercial descriptions of tea.  People shopping for tea, especially when considering buying from a company that they are not sure whether or not they trust, can look for certain patterns of speech in the commercial description of the teas, and can spot companies that are “talking up” their product, vs. the ones that are simply providing more objective factual information, or clearly identifying their own subjective opinion (there’s nothing wrong with subjective opinion, but I think it’s important to identify it as such rather than present it as global fact).  And companies writing commercial descriptions could use these insights to shape how they write about their tea, making it less likely that people would have the sort of knee-jerk reaction that I get when I read things like “You’ll love this.”

Picking Apart a Description: Rishi’s Masala Chai

Just like I picked apart a description of a tea by Upton Tea Imports in my original post, this time I want to pick on Rishi Tea.  I chose them in part because they are one of my favorite tea companies, and I think their tea descriptions tend to be excellent, and I want to keep the tone of this post positive.  But there are still a few quibbles I have with the description featured in the screenshot at the top of this post:

A robust and full-flavored black tea blended with our traditional Indian Masala spices. The bold flavor of our select shade-grown black tea presents full notes of cardamom, ginger and clove that is zesty and stimulating. Masala Chai should be brewed strong and served sweet with steamed milk and sugar.

What’s the problem here?  I highlighted two words that jump out to me.  Let’s look at one at a time:

Select is a word that I dislike in this context because it has a strong positive connotation in terms of quality of the tea, and yet is generic enough that it doesn’t say anything about the qualities of the tea itself.  This word seems to be claiming “this tea is really high-quality” without describing its attributes.  I like the words robust, bold, and full-flavored, because they communicate a quality that high-quality teas do not necessarily have.  Other teas with a different character might be described as smooth, delicate, or mellow, which would also communicate useful information.

I found it interesting that Rishi has since updated their description (presumably long before I took the screenshot above–I was slow at updating the commercial description on RateTea’s site).  The new description reads:

A robust and full-flavored black tea blended with our traditional Indian Masala spices with full notes of cardamom, ginger, and clove that are zesty and stimulating. Masala Chai should be brewed strong and served sweet with steamed milk and sugar.

I like the change.  It removes the one word that I objected to.  So what about the objection to the word “should”?  I wrote about my own personal battle with the word “should” in my post There is No Should.  But in the context of tea descriptions:

  • “Should” in this case makes a universal claim about the right or proper way to prepare Masala Chai.  Because personal tastes differ, this claim may not be truly universal.  This could evoke a small defensive reaction in a person who has a strong preference of preparing Masala Chai in a different way from the way described.  In my case, I tend not to like sweetening tea, so I objected on these grounds.
  • “Should” does not identify the nature of the claim.  Is Rishi saying: “We developed this blend to taste best when brewed…” or are they saying: “Masala Chai is traditionally brewed…”  These are two different statements.  The first would give me information that Rishi has specifically intended the brew for use with a particular brewing method.  The second case merely provides some historically background.  Neither of them evoke the slightly jarring reaction that I feel when I read the “should”.

I have no problems with brewing recommendations; quite to the contrary, I strongly prefer when tea companies provide recommendations for brewing their teas.  However, I think it comes across as slightly abrasive when companies present their recommendations as global fact, and I think the word “should” can sometimes come across in this manner, although whether or not it does depends greatly on context.

How About You?  What do you think?

I’m particularly interested to hear from others on this post.  I have several questions for my audience:

  • Do you agree with my overall recommendations for writing commercial descriptions, or do you have any points of disagreement?
  • Do you also react defensively or skeptically in the circumstances I described above, such as when a description makes a claim about what you will like, or a global statement about how things should be brewed?
  • Do you agree that Rishi’s new description of this tea constitutes an improvement over the old one?
  • What are your favorite companies with respect to their catalog descriptions of their teas?

Author: Alex Zorach (teacology)

I am the founder and editor of RateTea, and am also a co-founder at Why This Way. I am committed to sustainability in every aspect of my life. I like describing my approach to life as "ecological" because it is both scientific and holistic.

9 thoughts on “Writing Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea – Insights Into Communication From Why This Way

  1. I find these days that I want to know the tea’s origin location and am annoyed when the seller doesn’t provide it. If I call/write and the seller doesn’t know or provide the origin – then it’s a no-sell situation.

    • I think this makes a lot of sense. How much level of detail do you need about the origin though? Are you talking about a specific supplier, or like, county-level or province-level of China?

      I’ve noticed that companies that identify the source of their teas to greater levels of detail tend to have better teas. This observation is at the heart of why I made detailed regions (like individual provinces or counties in China, or Japanese prefectures) so central in how RateTea is designed. RateTea is designed to highlight or draw more attention to teas that have more specificity in their sourcing. For example, a tea from Anxi county will be listed under the category for Anxi as well as Fujian province, as well as China as a whole, so it will show up in more searches and, if it is rated well, be featured on more pages of the site than a tea just listed as from Fujian or just listed as from China.

  2. One thing that bothers me in tea descriptions is too many and too specific flavor comparisons (notes of macadamia nuts and wakame seaweed!). I prefer adjectives like “nutty” or “vegetal” rather than comparisons to specific foods or beverages. I think sometimes descriptions get a little carried away with something that essentially just tastes like tea.

    I think Rishi could easily change the “should” by saying something as simple as “Masala chai is often served with milk and sugar in India.” Or “We at Rishi think this tea tastes best with milk and sugar.”

    • I agree for the most part about really specific comparisons for flavor or aroma. I do think though that a greater degree of detail makes more sense with some teas than others.

      For example, Upton carries dozens of Assam teas. Most of them probably have malty qualities to the aroma. But it would be pretty useless to just list them all as “malty”. I think this is similarly true of listing Darjeeling teas as having a “muscatel” quality; I’ve seen some companies that describe so many of their teas like that that it seems not specific enough.

      I also notice that there are a few cases where Upton used more specific descriptors too, like there was one first flush Darjeeling that they described as having tones of citrus and mint. I was curious, because mint is an especially uncommon aromatic tone in pure teas (although I find wintergreen is much more common). I was surprised when the tea really tasted like this.

      I think that it’s good to use more specific descriptors sparingly though, and I think the examples you gave would seem too specific to me. I sometimes write analogies like that in my reviews, but I recognize that they’re more about my own perception than about a universal way the tea will be perceived by others, and I wouldn’t expect other people sampling it to make the same exact comparisons.

  3. While I would prefer marketers not to use language that lays claim to my owns and beliefs, I suspect they use that kind of language because it often works.

    It seems complicated to me because there are many different ways to interpret your question about language. For example:

    * The language I would prefer marketers to use
    * The language I believe probably works to sell more products
    * The language marketers would prefer to use
    * The language markets believe probably works to sell more products
    * The lanauge other people would prefer marketers to use
    * The language that will actually work to sell more products

    Some, many, all or none of these interpretations may overlap.

    • This is interesting. I agree that there are many different ways to view things.

      I know in my case, the language that I prefer marketers to use IS the language that will work to sell me more products. That may not be true for everyone, but I suspect that it is probably true for most people who consciously think about marketing material.

      I also think that there can be a pretty big disconnect between the language marketers believe works (or prefer to use), and what actually works. I’ve actually noticed that a lot of the language I dislike most, originates from very small companies, companies which probably don’t have the resources to test what kind of language works.

      With a big company like Teavana, however, that’s another question. It’s interesting though; there’s a lot that I object to about Teavana, including their pushy sales tactics (which I have experienced firsthand) and their exaggerated health claims (some of which I have researched and found to be highly distorted or even outright wrong). But, while their language in descriptions is often a bit flowery and exaggerated, and isn’t exactly what I’d prefer, I still find their tea descriptions to be relatively useful. I even prefer Teavana’s use of the imperative “Feel like royalty with this…” (describing their English Breakfast) rather than stating it: “You will feel…” the way I’ve seen a few companies do. It makes it feel more like an invitation than an invasion. Now if only they could achieve the same thing when customers walk into their stores…I avoid going in because more times than not, I’ve come out of there on edge because they strike me as so pushy.

      Anyway, this experience echoes my general experience, that the bigger companies tend to do less of the things that egregiously bother me, in writing their tea descriptions.

      • Hey!

        First, sorry for the garbled English in my comment. That’s what happens when I try to engage my brain pre-caffeine.

        I find the area of marketing tactics really interesting because I suspect there can sometimes exist a gulf between what consumers say works on them and what the data show works on them.

        I know I’ve heard media reports that negative political ads appear to work despite being very unpopular with viewers. It’s outside my area of expertise so I’m prepared to be disproven.

        However, intuitively I would imagine that kind of effect would be much smaller among the most discerning viewers. Or, in the case of tea descriptions, I would suspect the kind of language you object to (assuming it is an effective marketing tactic) is least effective on people who know the most about tea.

        I experience this kind of cognitive dissonance pretty regularly. I hate “fluff” or superficial pandering content on media channels like reddit or youtube, but often when I let my guard down I find myself absent mindedly clicking through to see the content. In an interview I would state I dislike that sort of thing, but from the point of view of the content creator, fluff works on me.

  4. No problem, your comments are perfectly readable!

    Hmm, this is interesting. I think that this supposed disconnect between “what people say works on them” and “what the data shows” may actually not be a disconnect so much as it may be that different people are being surveyed. I think it’s a small portion of people who actually think consciously enough about their buying habits and how marketing influences them, to say much intelligent about them, and probably a smaller group that ever articulates their views in any public forum, so when you read these people’s work (like me) you’re not exactly getting a representative sample.

    But I also think there’s a huge difference between clicking on content, and making a purchase.

    I am very conscious about what sorts of media I share, but I think most people are less conscious than I am. I think that people are most affected by manipulative techniques based on untruthful marketing or superficial qualities, when they’re in a more mindless state, like you said “absent mindedly clicking through”. I think when people are making careful, conscious decisions, they’re much less likely to do things like this.

    I don’t know about you but I don’t make online purchases when I’m in that mindset. To me, buying something, even something like tea that is not really that big a deal to buy, is something that I only do when I consciously think about it and decide that it’s something I want. This is especially true when buying tea online. I suspect that I’d be more influenced to make an impulse buy for tea, in a store, but even there, this is very rare. I usually only buy tea in stores when I set out to visit a particular store.

    And for me, when I buy tea online, the most important choice for me is which company to buy from. I think: “I’d like to order from such-and-such a company.” and then once I make that decision, I choose which teas to buy. When choosing which company to buy from, their commercial descriptions and (if I’ve tried their teas) my past experiences with comparing their teas to their descriptions, is one of the key factors I use.

    I also know that I’ve developed a really visceral negative reaction to some media outlets, because of what I see as sensationalism in headlines. An example is the Telegraph, a UK news source that I frequently see shared in my social networks on Facebook and other sites. I’ve had a lot of experiences clicking through to an item on the Telegraph, only to see that the headline was highly sensationalized and doesn’t truthfully represent the content of the article. Because I’ve had this experience so many times, I now never share any item from the Telegraph that someone shares in a feed.

  5. I find this insightful.
    I’ve always been turned off by the sort of marketing language you describe, but I’ve never really thought in-depth as to why. I think you raise some interesting points about the use of certain words and how they can trigger defensive mental reactions. I believe am more likely to buy products of which the descriptions respect my ability to come to my own conclusions about whether or not I like something, or how I will feel upon consuming the product.

    That said, when looking to buy tea, I tend to shop based on suggestions from other tea-lovers or reviews on third-party rating sites/blogs moreso than the company-written descriptions. After all, it is not the fault of the tea itself if the person in charge of describing it does not write in a way that appeals to me. At the same time though, I can understand the desire to do business with a company which describes itself in a manner that results in the customer feeling respected; this is something that actually becomes increasingly important to me recently.

    Personally I enjoy specific food-related descriptors (such as comparing it to seaweed, snap peas, shortbread, etc), so long as they prove to be accurate. I feel like such specific claims have more potential to be misleading, considering the variety of ways to interpret flavor, but sometimes they just are what they say they are. Sometimes very specific descriptions even enhance the experience of the tea for me while I am drinking it; I might notice a flavor note that I might have overlooked if I wasn’t searching for it. On the other hand one can certainly argue that descriptions might influence the taster to imagine something that isn’t there. But does it matter if the flavors are imagined or not, if the tea is enjoyed? That can certainly be debated too.

    I suppose a lot of advertising, factual or not, might be effective if it successfully primes the consumer’s mind to enjoy the product. If a tea claims you will feel like royalty, and you get this lovely mental image of yourself sitting on a luxuriously comfortable throne, relaxed and in control of the world around you, so you buy this tea and, while sipping it, find yourself in a mental state of ‘royalty’ due to the suggestion you were given, I think you would probably make positive associations with the tea and want to buy it again. In the case of something as harmless as enjoying tea, I do not see a problem with this (as I don’t think this is exploiting the consumer in any way; they are legitimately getting what they were promised, even if the royalty-feeling is a result of the description rather than the product itself), but I feel it is important in general to be aware when someone’s suggestions are influencing you, and then decide if you want to consciously accept the suggestion or not. But now I’m straying off topic (I am also not a marketing-psychologist and probably don’t have the authority to speak on that matter anyway).

    I will admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for poetic, imaginative descriptions, as completely devoid of actual information as they may be. I once bought a tea that was compared to something to the effect of being wrapped in a healing, nurturing embrace in the downy-soft fur of the mythical spirit-dragon that watches over tea-farmers as they sleep. This told me absolutely nothing about the tea, but I was so enchanted and amused by the creative writing that I bought it anyway and hoped the writer got a good cut of the profits (and hopefully went on to write engaging fantasy novels instead of tea-descriptions)!

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