COVER STORY: Who’s been taken for a mug?

Tetley’s plans to revive its fortunes and those of the tea industry as a whole appear to be in tatters after last week’s devastating rulings by advertising watchdogs against health claims made by the brand (MW last week).

In a bitter twist for the tea manufacturer, it has emerged that a medical expert who advised one of the regulators two years ago that Tetley’s claims were acceptable has had a change of heart after viewing new research.

The UK’s top purveyor of tea bags has been forced to drop a &£15m campaign to relaunch itself on a health platform, after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates press and poster ads, and the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which regulates commercial television, both ruled that there was insufficient scientific evidence to justify the tagline: “Tetley tea is rich in antioxidants that can help keep your heart healthy.” The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), which is responsible for pre-vetting TV ads, had given the ad the all-clear. The ASA also judged that the tagline “Go on, live a lot” implied that drinking Tetley could enhance life expectancy, which the brand owners could not prove.

The experience is a lesson for all brands that promote the health properties of their products in any but the most general terms. A claim that may be viewed as acceptable by doctors one day can be overturned the next, when new research is published.

For Tetley marketers, the question is where they take the &£120m tea brand next. A statement from the company insists that it will find other ways to promote tea on a health platform: “We are astounded by the decision, but will be working with the regulatory bodies to ensure that future wording complies with the sentiment of the ruling. We will of course abide by the ruling, but we are confident in the accuracy of the statements we made. So, we will seek new ways to communicate the health benefits of tea to our consumers.”

Just how Tetley can take the brand forward is a mystery. Any future health claims will have to be so generalised as to be meaningless, unless they can show the expert in question conclusive evidence of tea’s medical benefits.Focusing on the health-giving properties of tea was never going to be a simple brand-building device – it invited controversy, and risked inducing scepticism among consumers. One tea insider claims that rival PG Tips considered adopting a health positioning, but backed out because the evidence behind the health claims was merely circumstantial. The source adds: “The surprising element was that such a large brand as Tetley went for such a generic position on tea. The marketers were kidding themselves that people would buy Tetley because they thought it had more healthy properties than PG or Typhoo.”

Tetley believes the time has come for tea to become as fashionable as coffee – though there have been uncertain results from the tea bars launched by the big manufacturers, such as Tetley’s café, Gaffers (named after one of the Tea Folk), which closed last year; and Unilever’s Ch’a.

Tetley believes it is in the forefront of a new wave of tea drinking, and thinks it is in tune with modern health concerns. But its banned ads, created by soon-to-be-defunct agency D’Arcy, were panned at launch: “nausea-inducing”, “laughable”, “inexplicably poor” and “irrelevant” were among the comments thrown at them. Maybe the regulators have done Tetley a favour by forcing it to ditch a confused, unjustifiable and misleading advertising campaign.

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