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Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Missed Opportunities to Build Trust: Tea Companies Revealing Little Information About Themselves

Through my work on RateTea, I have seen the websites of hundreds of tea companies, far more companies than the brands I’ve sampled teas from. I never realized I’d say this, but I’ve seen dozens of companies come and go as RateTea has persisted through the years, growing into a much more stable business enterprise than many of the companies listed on it.

In spite of seeing countless company websites, I never cease to be excited when I discover a newly founded tea company.  But my excitement often turns to disappointment when I begin exploring a company’s website in more depth. The primary reason for my disappointment is a company spouting empty marketing platitudes while revealing little to no information about themselves, their history, founder, or vision.  My experience has taught me that many of the companies with little information about themselves on their website, are the first to go out of business.

The About Page: An Unparalleled Opportunity, a Marketer’s Dream

When I discover a new tea company, one of the first things I do is to pull up its website and look at their about us page.   This page represents an amazing opportunity for companies to talk about themselves. Seriously, in marketing, how rare is it that you have an audience of people who are specifically wanting to learn in detail about your company? This is the holy grail of marketing, and the about page is the one place on your website where people are going to go when they are specifically looking for this info.  And yet, so many companies blow it when they get to this point.

Here’s a screenshot of one I saw some time ago showing one of the worst examples of an about page; the company has since gone out of business, as one might expect:

no-info-tea-company

This is all the information I was able to find on the company’s website.  There is a whole bunch of specific information that I was looking for and did not find.

Some of my unanswered questions include:

  • Where is the company based, and where does it ship from?
  • When was the company founded, and how long has it been in business?
  • Who owns the company?  (Who is “we”?  I find it comes across as suspicious when a company uses “we” to talk about themselves but doesn’t identify their owner, staff, etc.)  How many employees does it have and what ownership structure does it have?
  • What makes this company special and different from existing companies? What is the personal story of the people who chose to found it? What inspired the company’s founding?
  • How can I trust any of the claims being made?  (i.e. claims like “the finest and healthiest” or “highly prized” or “from the best purveyors”)

When I see a page like this, I feel suspicious and distrustful. The about page has made some grandiose claims about the quality of the product, while delivering very little in the way of concrete information.  The only bit of information I see is that most of the tea is from China; this is the sort of information I want. But even this one tidbit is vague, and is the only example of information of this sort on the whole page.

Another Example Of What Not To Do

Just like the screenshot above, this screenshot is also from a company that I learned about some time back; this company is still in business:

no-info-tea-company-2

 

The irony here when they say “we do things differently to most” is enough to make me squirm, as they’re doing many of the exact same things other companies do that I most dislike.  This company provides a bit more information than the first, but it still leaves as unanswered the main questions I’d want to ask.  In particular, there’s still no owner, no staff, no location, no founding date, and almost nothing concrete about the company.

This page is also particularly bad because it does some specific things that rub me the wrong way:

  • Note how the text says “We may be Aussies at heart” — this alludes to the company or its staff possibly being Australian, but it’s an extremely vague and indirect claim.  I also see little other evidence on the site that the company is Australian: it doesn’t have a .au domain, it doesn’t list an Australian address, and doesn’t even show any overt quirks of Australian English.  I also have noticed that saying “at heart” is something that people can say when they want to show an affinity for a particular country or ethnic group without actually belonging to that group.  For example, I grew up in a city and went to a high school where the largest demographic group were Puerto Ricans, so there are certain affinities I developed for Puerto Rican culture, like how Puerto Rican Spanish sounds like it has “no accent” to me, whereas other dialects of Spanish sound like they have an accent, or my love of Puerto Rican salsa music, or my capacity to eat massive quantities of fried plantains (on their own, like tostones, or in foods like mofongo).  So I might say that I’m part “Boricua de corazón”. But I have no Puerto Rican descent, and can barely speak Spanish. If I were marketing anything to a Puerto Rican audience, or anywhere where I thought an affinity to Puerto Rican culture might go over well, I would want to make sure to tell my story specifically so that I didn’t come across as culturally insensitive or exaggerating my claims of connection to the culture. Back to the company pictured here, I want to read a story behind their use of the term “Aussies”: what does this mean? Exactly what is the connection to Australia?  Are they based there? If so, I would want them to advertise this.
  • This page talks a lot about health, and uses a lot of buzzwords like “pure and simple”, “treating your body with love and respect”, and “natural solutions”, things that sound vaguely positive and “healthy”, but are vague and ill-defined.  The claim “Our quality is nothing short of excellent, for you to place your health in our hands…we take this responsibility seriously.” sounds like the kind of claim I would expect from a health care provider, a pharmacist, or professional herbalist.  But I don’t see the company backing up their claims of quality, or even of their products being “pure” or “natural”. What sorts of things would I be looking for? Organic certification maybe? Or citing of the knowledge or research or expertise feeding into the formulation of any blends intended as medicinal products or medicinal teas, which could be anything from traditional use to controlled scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals.  What would be even better is what Traditional Medicinals does, actually studying their own blends and verifying that they have the claimed effect. Look at the specific examples of quality control that this company cites.  Another thing that would be great is what Camellia Sinensis Tea House has done, measuring and then publishing the antioxidant and caffeine content of their teas.  Don’t want to do this? Then don’t make health claims. I think it’s better to make no claims than to make overstated or overreaching claims.

The Photos: They Could Just Be Stock Photos

The photos on these sites seem to parallel the text.  Both websites have generic-looking photos. The photos look visually or aesthetically pleasing, but they’re not captioned, and they look like they could be stock photos. The first company shows a tea garden, the second a tea drinker.

What do I want to see in a photo on a tea company website? Here are some ideas:

  • A photo of the founder or owner
  • A picture of their packing and shipping operation
  • A picture of the specific tea gardens that the tea is sourced from, the farmers, the pickers, or the production
  • A picture of the warehouse, or a picture of the tea itself being brewed at a company-sponsored tea tasting.

I want the company to show me in pictures who they are, what they do, what kind of facilities they have, and what makes them special or unique.

What Effect Does This Have On These Companies?

I can’t speak for others but I am extremely reluctant to buy from a company with a vague about page, especially when paired with equally broad or vague marketing materials.  I’m especially turned off by the bold and general claims like selling “the finest teas” of “the highest quality” and stuff like that.  But in my case, I have a much bigger effect on a company than that of a typical individual or potential customer: I can choose whether or not to add the company to RateTea, and I can also choose whether or not to promote the company through sharing their materials or information about them on the various RateTea social media accounts.

RateTea receives a staggering amount of submissions of new companies wanting to be listed on the brands page, and an overwhelming majority of these either get rejected or held in the queue until there is a specific request from an established user or reviewer on the site to add that company.  The main reason I don’t list companies is that I don’t feel I have enough information about them to verify their legitimacy.  If I’m on the fence of whether or not to add a particular company, my impression of the company from their about page is often something that puts me clearly on one side of the fence or the other.

I know from experience that most companies that submit themselves to RateTea and have about pages like the ones pictured and described above usually attract few or no reviews (and few or no views), and in many cases, go out of business after less than a year.  I put care into researching companies to create their page on RateTea, linking them up with social media accounts and sometimes even highlighting external news coverage of anything special or interesting the company is doing.  It takes time, and I’m not willing to put in this time unless the company has put in the time to present themselves in a professional way that demonstrates that they have good business sense.

Are companies even moving in the right direction?

One of my favorite tea companies, Rishi Tea, used to have an about page that was almost an ideal example of what I’d want to find or see on such a page.  The old page demonstrated their legitimacy and communicated some of the key things that make their company special and unique:

rishi-tea-about

What did I like about this page?

  • The page began by introducing the founder and date of founding, and told a story about the founder’s inspiration and motivation behind the company.
  • The introduction led into a story about the company’s history and growth in a way that introduced their products in the context of the changes the company has been through.
  • In the course of this story, you could learn where the company is based and be introduced to other people involved in the company as well as the various facilities and business relationships that the company has.
  • The page explained the deep meaning behind its name, which made it seem more meaningful.
  • The photos were actual photos of the company’s current and original headquarters.

The effect? Rishi Tea seemed very real to me. This about page conveys legitimacy in a powerful way. As I read it, I learn more about the company, and it feels personal.

I wish more new companies would follow the lead of companies that take this sort of approach to their about page. Why companies don’t reveal personal information and a personal story is completely beyond me, but it doesn’t seem to be good business practice.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if these new tea companies had better about pages, they’d probably do better business and they would be more likely to survive the first few years of operation.

And Rishi Tea screws it up:

Rishi Tea redesigned their website some time ago, and they totally gutted their about page.  Although I love the new site and think it is far superior to the old one on most counts, I’m not exactly thrilled about the changes to the about page; the new page is not quite as bad as the examples I gave above, but it leaves out all the things I highlighted as liking most about their old about page.  Take a peek:

out

It’s not exactly horrible…but gone is any mention of the specifics of ownership, founding, and the story of the company’s growth.  The page now speaks in broad generality, and it makes a lot of grandiose claims, calling themselves “the vanguard practitioner of tea and botanical arts”.  Really now?  I love Rishi tea but this ridiculously exaggerated language has me scratching my head.

I still trust Rishi Tea, but that’s not because of their new about page, it’s because I know them. I have tried many of their teas over a period of many years, I have met some of their employees in person at tea conventions, and I know small businesses that use them as a supplier.

If I were learning about them for the first time, though, their about page would be insufficient to establish the sort of trust that their old about page did.  It would probably make me a little skeptical.

I feel sad when I see a company make a change like this, one that seems to be moving in the wrong direction.  I like Rishi’s new site overall; it’s prettier, it uses responsive design and looks much better than the old one on either very narrow or very wide layouts, and it’s easy to use and navigate.  But I wish they could have retained those great elements of their old about page, the ones that made the company seem more personal and real to me. Any company with a sufficient budget can pay someone to make a pretty website, but only the owners and key personnel in a tea company can tell the story of the company’s founding, struggles, growth, and successes.

And, in the day and age of the internet and online interactions where interpersonal trust is hard to come by, I ultimately find these stories, especially when they are full of concrete details and specifics, to be the best way for companies to establish this sort of trust and legitimacy.

I want to see Rishi Tea, and all the other tea companies doing great things, succeed and thrive.  Why are they shooting themselves in the foot like this?

What Do You Think?

  • How do you react to about pages and marketing material like those pictured above? Is your reaction similar to mine?
  • Can you think of any legitimate reason that companies wouldn’t want to share identifiable information like location, ownership, and founder and staff names, or is this really just a self-defeating oversight and a missed opportunity?
  • What advice would you give companies for things to say (or not say) about themselves on their about page or other marketing materials? Are there any things you would advise differently from what I do, such as things I’ve omitted, or things I recommend saying that you don’t think are always the best ideas?
  • Am I just a weirdo?  Am I the only one who has these negative, distrustful gut reactions to these vague about pages spewing broad generalizations and providing few details?
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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?