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The absolute best tea shop ever

Tea Room OpenI just finished reading a fascinating Harvard Business Review blog post entitled “Stop Competing to Be the Best.” Whether your business is computers, airport terminals, or tea shops, Joan Magretta has a pertinent message for you: being “the best” is a bad thing.

I remember when I bought my iPad, and I listened to people telling me why I had made a horrible mistake. “It doesn’t show Flash websites.” I don’t use any Flash-based websites. “It doesn’t have a real word processor.” I don’t use it for word processing. “It has no camera.” I use my phone as a camera. “It doesn’t run Windows.” Well, thank God for that! The point is that everyone uses their tablets differently. While the iPad is perfect for me, it may be a horrible choice for you.

The same is true of tea shops.

When we opened our tea bar, we asked ourselves a lot of hard questions. One of them was what to call the business. The term “tea room” conjures up images of fine china, Earl Grey tea, crumpets with clotted cream, and lace doilies. Definitely not our market. A “tea shop” is frequently either focused on Chinese or Japanese tea, with beautiful oriental teacups and a great selection of green and white teas. The nearest tea house to us is run by an herbalist, who has a deep selection of herbs; she must have 200 drinks that don’t contain Camellia sinensis (the tea plant) at all.

Do we want to compete with them to be the best tea shoppe/tea bar/tea room in the area? Not at all.

Success in the tea business, like success in any other business, depends upon defining the word “best” so that it applies to you. We serve our tea in glass mugs so you can see the tea. If you want a “to go” cup, we use compostable cups for both hot and iced tea. No fine china. No fancy teapots. We don’t consider Earl Grey to be any better or any worse than lapsang souchong (or Earl Grey lapsang souchong for that matter), white tea, green rooibos, or purple tea. They’re just different. We’re not tea Nazis.

We’re also not herbalists. I don’t select our teas based on whether they’re supposedly good for menstrual cramps or helping you go to sleep — most of that is pseudoscience and marketing hype anyway. I choose them based on how they taste. People don’t walk into our tea bar looking for a couple ounces of something to help with their digestion; they walk in looking for a tasty genmaicha or pu-erh. That, we can help with.

I remember taking a marketing class that used Sun Tzu’s Art of War as its text. It’s amazing how much an ancient Chinese treatise on war applies to modern-day marketing and business strategy. One of the clear lessons is that you should never meet the enemy on its own turf unless you have an overwhelming advantage. If you wish to succeed in the tea business, then create your own business model. Don’t pick someone else’s and try to beat them at it. If you define the word “best” so that it applies to you, then you win the game from the day you open your doors. I don’t know if Joan Magretta studied Sun Tzu, but they’re preaching the same message. Learn from it.

Copywriters and tea marketing experts

FDA LogoThese days, you can’t be too careful what you say on a tea website. Last year, Unilever was warned by the FDA for claims they made about “Lipton Green Tea 100% Natural, Naturally Decaffeinated.” A week later, they warned Dr. Pepper Snapple Group about claims they made concerning “Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale.” Earlier this year, the FDA’s target was Diaspora Tea & Herb (d.b.a. Rishi Tea) for a wide variety of health claims on Rishi Tea’s website.

Given these warning shots fired across the bows of the big boys, the whole industry is being careful about making nutritional claims for tea. But we still need to say more about tea than just “this stuff tastes really, really good” — although that’s generally good enough for me.

For an example of how far companies are going these days, we got a promotional mailer at the bookstore today from Numi Tea. They are a fine company, and I’d be happy to resell some of their products in our tea bar. The mailer has some traditional marketing language (with appropriate footnotes, of course), just as I’d probably write myself:

“[Pu-erh]’s unique fermentation process results in more antioxidants than most green teas and is traditionally known to help weight management*, improve digestion and naturally boost energy.”

Well, I hope I wouldn’t write it exactly like that, but given a bit of tweaking to the grammar and punctuation, it’s a reasonable sentence.

The first claim is footnoted “*Along with a healthy diet and exercise.” Okay. I’ll buy that. Given enough healthy diet and exercise, lots of things help with weight management. The other two claims are very difficult to measure and/or prove. Vague claims typically don’t draw the ire of the FDA, so they’re probably safe.

But it was the next section that made me chuckle. It says, and I quote:

“Every blend is freshly brewed, made with full-leaf tea and uses 100% real ingredients for a pure Pu-erh tea taste.”

Wow! It uses 100% REAL INGREDIENTS! Is that the best they could do? Really? Can you imagine the certification process for that? “Is this an ingredient? Yep!” I carry 100 different teas in my tea bar, and I can guarantee you that every single one of them carries 100% real ingredients. Yep. Not an unreal ingredient in the bunch.

I did a bit of further looking, and found that the front cover of their mailer says, “Real ingredients. 100%. Nothing else.” There’s a whole section of their website called “100% real ingredients.” There’s a paragraph on that page of their site that says:

“For a pure, authentic taste, we blend premium organic teas and herbs with only real fruits, flowers and spices. We never use ‘natural’ flavorings or fragrances like other teas do.”

I’m pleased to hear that they only use “real” ingredients, and not “natural” ones like everyone else. Come on, Numi. You make some absolutely fantastic teas, and your organic and fair-trade programs are excellent. I’d like to see you spend more time talking about that — which really does differentiate your products — and less time talking about being “real,” which means absolutely nothing.

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