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Patterns - a series of professional observations about package design practices within specific product categories


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Patterns is a series of professional observations about package design practices within specific product categories - brought to you by the design team at R.BIRD.

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Featured in this report:

Brands referenced include: Adagio, Arizona, Bag Ladies, BeauCoup, Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings, Choice, Crate and Barrel, Crystal Light, Enviga, Good Earth, Harney & Sons, Harry & David, Honest Tea, ineeka, Ito En, Joe, Kusmi, Lipton, LUNA, Mighty Leaf, Nestea, Nova, Numi, Oregon, Pixie, POM, Pure Leaf, Red Rose, Republic of Tea, Revolution, Salada, Sencha, Snapple, Special Teas, Stash, Sweet Leaf, Synergy, Taylors of Harrogate, Tazo, Tea Forte, Teany, Teavana, Tetley, Totally Light, Traditional Medicinals, Twinings, XS, Yogi, Zingers.


Our observations were drawn from a wide sampling of brands, including those shown above and more. These products can be found in most retail supermarkets, health food stores, and on the Internet.


These photos were taken at area supermarkets and stores in metropolitan New York City. Tea products can be found next to coffee and in the drink aisles – as well as the refrigerated section next to the orange juice.

Shelf Shock

Many of us associate the drinking of tea with a ritual of relaxation and revelry. One glimpse of a large retailer shelf offering tea and the effect is instantaneously the opposite.

Packaging graphics for tea and tea beverages at mass market tends toward loud, clumsy, and the hard-edged, laden with marketing speak and collectively hyperactive.

It's astounding to see that a product with a culturally-rich history can find its way to such an abhorrent end. Even a very brief study of the rich heritage of tea, its varieties, culture and rituals, leads one to recognize such insensitivity in presentations, both packaging and product.

Is there room for a quieter, gentler brand and product in this space? Better question: Is there any room at all?


Tea and its origins, varieties and cultures is rich in heritage. Nonetheless, there seems to be a dearth of storytelling playing a prominent role in packaging of tea.

We attribute this to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western cultures. Let's face it. Western cultures have far to go and much to learn, while Eastern cultures span many thousands of years. In that context, history is treasured and trumpeted.

Western culture, too often, favors quick commercialization above honored heritage in its product marketing and packaging. There's a huge opportunity for brand-building in the tea category, particularly, as the west becomes more knowledgeable about the beverage.

Storytelling is a way to build understanding and demand for authenticity and quality of experience.

Asian Influences

Many of us associate the Eastern hemisphere with the origins of tea, including: China, India, Ceylon and Japan. The use of background patterns, graphic shapes, typographic styles and iconic figures of these regions creates an association with time and place that enhances perceived authenticity.

The use of authentic images and symbology in packaging for tea also creates a promise that the product will live up to the expectations created through visual cues.

The Leaf

Images of whole tea leaves are common in all varieties of teas and tea-flavored beverage packaging, regardless of price or form. Packaging claims may include statements similar to, "made from the finest whole tea leaves."

Such claims for many tea products found in retail mass-market are stretching the truth. Grades of tea follow this hierarchy from best to lowest quality: "O.P." or whole leaf; "B.O.P" or broken whole leaf; "Fannings" or crumbled bits of leaf; and, finally, "Dust" the waste that's left over from the rest.

As consumers become more educated to the origins, processing and serving of tea, an honest representation of product content will be well-received where expected and judged harshly where inappropriate.


Most retail packaging of teas follows the color=flavor rule to the letter. White tea packaging is white; black for Black tea; Green for green tea; and something in-between for Oolongs. Fruit or flavor blends are, likewise, predictable. Orange teas are orange; Raspberry is red and, so on.

In reality, there is no hard rule that links the color of steeped teas with their type. White, Green, Oolong and Black refer to the degree of processing and oxidation of the tea leaf from least to most, respectively. Chai teas are creamy, referring to heating with milk. In fact, White teas can be reddish-brown... Green teas can be white... Oolongs can be quite dark. Japanese green teas do, indeed, tend to be green when steeped, because the leaves are steamed rather than pan-heated after picking. Perhaps, there's an opportunity for an authentic line of whole-leaf teas packaged in colors true to the brewed color of its tea.

Health Benefits

Benefit claims in retail tea packaging are most often expressed in simple, typographic statements or violating banners with little explanation or visual support. The most common claim relates to antioxidant properties of catechins that occur naturally in the tea.

Modern day studies on the health benefits of tea have largely been done on Green teas in Japan. There are other studies, however, that suggest similar benefits exist in all varieties of tea, since all teas are derived from Camellia Sinensis plants.

There is evidence suggesting that tea can help lower cholesterol, fight cancers, neurological disorders and more. The potential health benefits of tea are growing and understanding it all is not so clear for the average buyer.

There's an opportunity for tea brands to help consumers make educated decisions through more complete explanations of health claims.


Yogi Tea offers two, distinct lines of teas with cures for what-ail's-ya and enhanced living. From relief to the common cold to a fasting aid, you're covered. One brand, in particular, champions such a position: Traditional Medicinals. This company's greatly expanded line of flavored and herb blends includes Mental Performance and Healthy Liver function among its benefits.

Both Yogi Tea and Traditional Medicinals are noteworthy examples of what appear to be authentic efforts at selling tea as remedy. According to legend and written records that go as far back as the origins of tea itself, Shennong, ancient Emperor of China - and credited as the inventor of Chinese medicine - is said to have used teas as the antidote to his self-inflicted testing of toxins and other ailments.


At one time in history, tea was traded as currency. Tea leaves compressed into solid bars or wheels were more easily transportable. Measured amounts could be cut with a knife and weighed for value. Today, such compressed teas can be found in authentic tea shops and are popular as gifts.

Much of the variety in structure for retail packaging of teas contribute little to quality, since the contents are handicapped to begin with, being fannings or dust, the lowest grade of tea leaf.

The next horizon in packaging for teas might be aimed at improving and preserving the quality and enjoyment of the beverage, not simply using the container as a way to stand out on shelf.


Because there is little difference in quality among the growing numbers of mass-market retail teas, unique and unusual container shapes and materials are a way to differentiate. Tins and natural papers make a connection with the way that whole-leaf teas are kept by specialty tea shops.

Retail packaging of teas contributes little to quality, since the contents are often handicapped to begin with, being fannings or dust, a lower grade of tea leaf. Aficionados might find a tea called, "Moose Munch," to be somewhat contradictory, for example, even though carefully packaged in a tin.

Tea Bags

There's been much experimentation in tea bags, recently, in an effort to find ways to improve flavor. Nylon bags are said to have less negative influence on flavor while steeping. Green consumers protest, however, since the synthetic material is not biodegradable in the way that paper tea bags are. Pyramid shaped bags are believed to allow more room for natural expansion of the leaf during steeping.

Unfortunately, most tea sold in single-cup tea bags is of the lowest quality. Even so, it's worth recognizing the efforts in new tea bag ideas as a way to improve the results. Might it be possible to create a natural-material, expanded-shape tea bag sufficient in size to accommodate a higher grade of tea leaf?

Tea Pots & Tea Cups

The beauty of a tea cup is an essential element in the experience of tea. The presentation of tea cups and tea pots makes a direct and immediate connection with flavor and warmth. Add a wisp of steam and the feeling is complete.

Tea cups are thinner for delicate sipping. Porcelain is preferred, since its influence on flavor is small while it preserves the heat of the beverage. Chai teas, on the other hand, are traditionally served in heaver, earthier cups as coffees are.

Glass cups and pots allow the color and light qualities of the liquid to shine, further enhancing an image of freshness, purity and good taste.

Flavored Teas

Flavored teas, or blends, in mass market retail tend to be very bold in presentation and flavoring. There is little subtlety in visual communication of flavor. As in the bold, fruity tastes, the graphics and illustrations of fruits and berries dominate labeling. On another note, some of these teas may contain no tea at all.

In the realm of tea connoisseurs, there also exist exotic and tempting blends of teas with fruits and herbs. Yet, these blends are much more subtle and carefully crafted. The tea leaf remains the primary source of flavor with a hint of floral or vegetal taste in the end.


Rich, colorful and inspired illustrations proliferate in much of the retail packaging for teas, particularly in flavored blends and beverages. Almost psychedelic in their depth and illusion, these drawings and photographs intend to transport the customer to another place and dimension of experience.

The collective effect of this phenomenon can be somewhat unnerving and contrary to the feeling that some tea drinkers are seeking. Perhaps the message becomes overly complex when all the levels of communication are combined. The essence of the brand may be obfuscated, not to mention the qualities of the tea, itself.

Vernacular Design

One might instinctively seek to use authentic tea imagery, eastern culture stylings and historically-accurate references to build a trusted tea.

Teas with names, such as, "Joe Tea," "Farmhouse," and "Luna" are not your grandmother's tea, though, "Sweat Leaf" appears to have been brewed by grandma!

Just as there's a market for "Yellow Tail" wine and "Dead Guy" beer, so shall there be a niche for teas of vernacular character, such as these.

Such positioning may work at the "far-removed" end of tea, but how might such an idea play out in the lingua-franca realm of high-quality, fresh, whole-leaf teas?

Teas Far Removed

What's sold in large supermarkets and even small gourmet shops is largely packaged for convenience with little relationship to quality. At best, broken leaf tea, is to be expected. At worst, dust, which is commonly found in tea bags.Ready-to-drink, iced-tea beverages sold in refrigerated cases contain as little tea as one can imagine and, what remnant of tea there is, comes from an extract of tea. One can say that such beverages are as far removed from tea as they can be while still claiming to be tea.

Flavored waters and teas are becoming increasingly popular in the west as a result of health-related messaging on the benefits of catechins found in tea. At the same time, soft drinks and carbonated beverages may be losing ground.Curiously, the opposite trend may be coming in the East, where tea began. Asian youth are more attracted to the sizzle of sugary drinks and less loyal to the customs and history of tea culture.

Energy Teas

No, the energy drink phenomenon is not exclusive to super-caffienated, carbonated beverages. Attempts are being made to associate teas with supercharging, using many of the same visual stylings seen in the "monster" energy drink category. (See our published report on Energy Drinks, July 2004).

Tea is widely esteemed for its unique ability to refresh and sharpen wits. The Oolong teas are best known for this characteristic. Why not build on this platform, rather than the counter-intuitive, caffeine edge? Blends of Black, Oolong and Green could be developed with special appeal to lethargic students and distracted office workers, for example. Tea may be, indeed, the ultimate energy drink alternative.

Tea Extended

Fascination with tea is not limited to tea-time. So fascinated have we become with the mysteries, experience and benefits of tea, that the ingredient can be found just about anywhere: in beauty products, body creams, perfumes, candles, vitamins and even potato chips.

Use your imagination liberally. On your next branded line extension program, wonder how linking your product with the benefits of tea might play out.

Teahouses and Boutiques

Leveraging the present tea-mania in the West, upscale boutiques like Teavana seek to capitalize on the trend by offering anything and everything "tea" under one roof.

For a more meaningful and lasting experience, try finding a local tea shop that offers tea tastings and informational sessions to pique your interest.

Is there a Starbucks-equivalent for tea drinkers waiting in the wings?

There is, yet, another brave new world on the Internet for tea lovers to follow and for tea novices to learn. These web sites explain the origins of tea, its processing and types in much more detail than retail packaging does. While specialty tea shops may be hard to find in smaller towns and villages, shoppers can find even the most esoteric blends and grades of tea readily available.

Online retailing is the perfect venue for launch and testing of your specialty offering, since it may be difficult to obtain retail shelf space or convince your local grocer to carry your brand. Your is also a good way to build a loyal following and craft your voice with less risk and potentially greater rewards.


On July 10 George Ford said...

Another great Patterns report. Fascinating. You’ve covered a lot of ground with a minimum of writing.

In the storytelling section, your conclusion that oriental cultural icons can add to the tea brand sell is a great point. But your premise for explaining why Western brands don’t is mistaken. Your basic premise that the East is somehow further developed than the West really caught my eye, and got me thinking about my own experience. At least from my Southeast Asian experience. A lot of the comments I’m about to make don’t apply to India.

History is not more treasured and trumpeted in the East than in the West. Far from it. I have interviewed probably 400 taxi drivers in Jakarta and Singapore over 20 years, and not one has known the birth year of their grandparents, and the vast majority do not even know what decade they were born, or what decade they migrated to that city, if they did migrate. Or why they migrated.

Most Americans I know can figure out these dates with a little thought, and have heard stories about ancestors from 100 years ago or more. Many Americans have seen their family trees, even before the internet, and I have never met an Asian who can even conceive what a family tree is.

Many Americans have some idea of the 400 year history of America since the Pilgrims. A vague idea, at least. They are taught some of it, they see it in movies, they see it in their hometowns on the East Coast when carefully researched recreations of battles and so forth are staged. To ask an Asian about their village 400 years ago, or 100 years ago, in unimaginable. Their village didn’t even exist. Whole populations were conquered by othe Asian populations, cultures wiped-out and so forth.

There is nothing like Williamsburg in Asia. It is uniquely Western to celebrate history in this way, by recording actual events and the historical personalities and bringing them to life. It’s a wonderful gift, and I do know of one Indonesian who visited and he talked to me about many times.

Town libraries are rare in Asia. In bookstores, it’s all about computer and business — these are the topics that would cause an Asian to buy a book, not history. They think about tomorrow. Their community, town, city, whatever, is not permanent. They don’t feel linked to a history the way Westerners do. Many Asians are ambitious and energetic, and thrive in the more competitive Western countries, which is why so many move here, or wish to.

I have the impression that grandparents in Asia don’t speak about the past to their kids and grandkids as much as American grandparents do. I have never met an Asian my age who has any understanding of WWII, even though it was fought there. North Asians may be different, in terms of hearing family lore, but from what I understand, WWII is not taught in Japan, or if it is, only in the past several years.

Little attempt is made by schools, governments or private groups to keep the history of their countries alive. Often the emphasis is on victimization by other Asian cultures, or Western culture. History in Asia is highly political, and tightly controlled by governments. For example, in Singapore, the history is that everything that happened prior to the current regime’s coming to power in 1965 was chaotic, corrupt and miserable, and everything since has been beneficent. In Indonesia, school books were burned last year that tried to tell a balanced view of events in the 1960s. In Malaysia, state television airs “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” once a year on a Muslim holiday.

In packaging, American consumers are more attracted to heritage-type looks than Asian consumers. Orville Redenbacher, Pepperidge Farm, Sir Thomas Lipton. There are countless heritage looks in US consumer marketing. Even Snickers is selling right now in the supermarkets an old 1920s wrapper! There are heritage “looks” in Indonesia and Singapore, particularly in traditional cosmetics and the “Singapore Girl” icon of Singapore Airlines, but its not as common as in the US. In Asia, the past is the past, what happened back then is long forgotten, and not so easily romanticized. Those who romanticize Siam in 1900 or Hong Kong in 1948 are Western playwrights, songwriters and movie-makers.

The reasons for this are complex, but in general I have observed Asia to be a forward-looking culture. The new is the good. The old is the bad. In Southeast Asia, the big brands gravitate toward Western pack designs because of the practicality, the boldness, the smartness, the newness of the designs. The West represents modernity, and import quality. What is local is seen as inferior.

These are just some thoughts on the premise you state. Western culture, in my view, should not be portrayed as an undeveloped, adolescent version of the East. The liberal values that drive our society today are Western. Due process is Western. Private property is Western. Free market capitalism is Western. Most of the free scientific inquiry of the past 500 years has been Western, and has coexisted peacefully with the teachings of the major religious institutions. Westerners are friendly, compassionate, optimistic, generous, industrious and creative. It is my view that you should be more open-minded about the West, and not take its gifts for granted.

On July 13 Richard Bird said...

Fascinating comments, George! And much more than that.

Now, you’ve got me thinking….

Why is it that Western designers assigned to products of Eastern heritage might so, automatically, be drawn to romanticize? Have we been completely missing the mark?

I think, it’s a matter of the visual richness, detail and craft that we see in the art histories of Europe and the East that stimulates.

Your explanations of forward perspective and political denial of past seems valid while provocative. One might conclude that Asian consumers abhor the presentation of anything that smacks of history, whether beautiful or not.

What, now, might be the ideal platform for development, when speaking of branding and product design in this realm? Is it, simply: whatever is happening in the West is automatically desirable - and canonized - in the East?

Or, might we better explore a method for “Western modernization of Eastern heritage” as a way to enlighten?

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