Char for the memories

Britain's love of the cuppa is turning cold, but a new ad campaign is trying to turn the young on to tea
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The Independent Culture
Britannia is too cool to drink tea. The nation's love affair with its once favourite brew has soured, research published this week shows. Busier lifestyles, the inexorable rise of the soft drink and our growing passion for America's latest cultural import - the coffee bar - are all to blame. Oh, and the fact that a growing number of us think the humble cuppa is, not to put too fine a point on it, dull.

Think tea, think slippers. Dunkable digestives. Cosy kitchens. Associations with clubbing, dining out and the work hard, play hard ethos of today's bright young things seem tenuous, to say the least. UK tea sales have fallen by 3.5 per cent in the past five years, research from market analysts Euromonitor reveals. True, not a major collapse but just as worrying: a gradual demise.

"The market has been static, if not in decline, for the past few years," admits Chris Thomas, marketing director of Premier Brands which owns Typhoo.

"Older people are fairly well-established in their habits. When it comes to tea they've drunk the same brand day in day out for 30, 40, 50 years. Young consumers are saying tea is old hat. We need to perk it up."

Which is why Typhoo's new advertising campaign is designed to get us dancing to our kettles. Feelgood shots of everyday people doing everyday things in unusual ways are neatly choreographed to a musical accompaniment by Seventies funksters Kool and the Gang. The commercial, aimed at young housewives, marks an attempt to make tea more relevant to our time. It's a far cry from chimps in frocks.

Meanwhile, the Tea Council last month unveiled a generic logo for tea. The sun and cup motif is described by its creator, designer Ken Windsor, as: "A light-hearted bon vivant device to re-position tea in the hearts and minds of the consumer as a healthy, hearty drink."

Windsor, creative director of design company Siegel & Gale, explains that worldwide, interest in tea is flagging. The logo, likely to be introduced in the UK next year, marks an attempt to position tea as a healthy drink perfectly in tune with Nineties' lifestyles.

He's got a point. Ever since it was first invented by the Chinese and made its European debut in the mid-16th century, tea has been revered for its health-enhancing qualities. One Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited with the invention of afternoon tea when she grew tired of a certain sinking feeling that afflicted her each afternoon at around 4pm in the long, dull space between meals.

To begin with, tea was an indulgence restricted to monarchs and wealthy aristocrats because of cost. Soon, tea drinking - and the tea-making paraphernalia that went with it - became a statement for social climbers. Eventually, tea went mainstream, becoming a mainstay of British working life.

Even so, it was seen by some as subversive. Infuriated by the fact that the average labourer spent around one third of his earnings on tea, William Cobbett wrote in 1822: "Tea drinking has done a great deal in bringing this nation into the state of misery in which it now is." He went on to warn against the brew's side effects: "A softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fire side, a lurking in bed and, in short, all the characteristics of idleness." Which, of course, was part of its appeal.

Secure in the knowledge tea had become the national drink and an internationally- recognised symbol for England and the English way of life, tea companies grew complacent. True, they began to invest in "tea technology".

But despite developing square and then round tea bags, tea granules, decaffeinated tea, pyramid and draw string bags little thought was paid to attracting new generations of tea drinkers. We'd continue to drink tea because ... we always had.

Wrong. Suddenly, fizzy drinks were all the rave. Brands like Tango, Red Bull and latest newcomer Tizer Ice have become lifestyle statements. And younger consumers swallowed it all, glass by glass.

"It's image-led - everyone is interested in image now," laments Illtyd Lewis, executive director of the Tea Council. "To position tea as the healthy lifestyle drink is unchallengable." But then came London's booming coffee bar scene which, with its new vocabulary - "latte", "mocha", "double tall skinny", is now leading the nation towards more sophisticated hot drinking habits.

Sophie Rutter, a store assistant and regular at the Seattle Coffee Company on Carnaby Street is typical. "Tea's okay at home, but think about going out to a cafe for a cup of tea and you think greasy spoon, fried eggs and cigarette smoke," she says. Or, at the opposite extreme, the refined confines of The Ritz? "I've never been. But if I did I bet it would be full of Japanese tourists, not people like me." Adds her friend, Robert Johnson, a trainee architect: "I love a nice cuppa in the morning and that's about it. If I need picking up I'd rather drink Red Bull - preferably with a shot of vodka."

Tea is still "a big thing" at breakfast but a major loser when it comes to evening meals, says Mac Cato, chairman of brand experts Cato Consulting which has recently investigated the potential to revive the tea room. "The habits and rituals associated with tea have bred a strong sense of continuity, but never excitement," he says.

Young people's lifestyles are against it, adds Ian Pierpoint, associate director of youth marketing consultancy Informer. "For a start, they're eager to turn against the consumer choices made by their parents," he says - which explains recent talk of declining sales of branded jeans and trainers. "Tea isn't cool. It's something you have at home, not when you're out and about."

In an attempt to grab us on the move, Brooke Bond is launching ready- to-drink PG Tips in a can - not in response to lagging consumer demand but as an attempt to "keep up with consumer lifestyles", a spokeswoman for the company insists. In case you were wondering, the pre-prepared drinks are bought from a heated vending machine at 55-57C.It may sound familiar but, the company adds, tea in a can comes fresh and without the cardboard taste of familiar to frequenters of the ubiquitous Max Pack machine.

Could this remedy the younger generation's disinterest in tea? Brooke Bond certainly hopes so. In fact it predicts the UK market for hot drinks in a can could become as big as impulse ice creams.

Convenience rather than image is the key obstacle to overcome, the company believes. And it may have a point. After all, do we really want our cuppa to be exciting?

Tea may be many things - a pick me up, a soother, a comforter and (given half a chance) a cooler on a hot summer's day - but it's rarely trendy and never the cause of excitement. Tea companies have been warned. Should any feel compelled to try too hard the results would surely be unnerving - a bit like seeing your dad bopping on the dance floor, dressed in Nike trainers and a pair of Levi's.