The Alchemy of Tea Marketing: Sutherland

T h e A l c h e m y o f T e a M a r k e t i n g : S u t h e r l a n d

The Alchemy of Tea Marketing looks to bring some of the most popular marketing thinkers and apply their concepts to the business of tea. The three influential marketers covered, and their level of influence include:

  1. Peter Drucker – the planetary level of marketing concepts
  2. Seth Godin – the climate level of marketing concepts
  3. Rory Sutherland – the weather level of marketing concepts

Druker’s higher level approach works to shape marketing by conforming the business to the truest needs and desires of the customer. Godin’s level aims more at the shared identity created between the customer and the brand’s (or product’s) stories. Sutherland’s approach leverages more fundamental changes in perception.

Rory Sutherland is Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, and a leading voice of behavioral sciences as applied to marketing. He is a TED global speaker and author of Alchemy: The Surprising Power Of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.

Sutherland often holds the position that what is truly valuable to a customer is the perception or impressions they have of a good or service. He tends to agree with the David Ogilvy quote: “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.

Inspired by the principles of behavioral economics, Sutherland gives these useful principles that can be applied to tea.


Harney & Sons Tea

Signaling, or costly signaling, is found everywhere from big old banks to flowers in the field. The idea is that the more costly something looks to produce, the more a person (or plant) will lose if that investment doesn’t pay off. Instead of a few drab, flimsy petals, plants put energy into attracting bees by producing flowers with more color and fragrance. Bees and insects are expected to get the impression that a more attractive flower contains more (or better) nectar- why else would a rose bush spend so much effort creating a rose unless there was significant payoff for the rose bush? Grand old bank lobbies created the same effect- the vast, expensive, and intimidating structures were meant to create the impression that the financial institution was secure and powerful – and therefore a great place to put your money.

Tea brands have been playing the signaling game for a long time. Harney & Sons, for example, has crafted a look that signals the distinctive, luxurious experience found in their teas. The stylizing of their logo and packaging evoke associations with classic luxury hotels and British sophistication. The signaling is clear- Harney offers fine teas.


To oversimplify things, subconscious hacking tells us that the context of a situation, or the framing of a thing, invites significantly different responses.

Hacking: Patagonian toothfish or Chilean seabass?
Wild Ohio Tea Beer

When their customers arrive for an evening of fine dining,  restaurant owners knew their guests would almost certainly choose the Chilean seabass over the Patagonian toothfish (although it is the same thing). Brewers may gamble that beer drinkers think similarly and say to themselves: “Tea is good for you, so a beer with tea is probably a better choice compared to a regular beer with no tea.” Especially if a tea-beer offers other valuable, additional characteristics.

Please be clear here- hacking is not about deception, but about employing the placebo effect – framing in a way that creates a more desirable outcome. No one should be allowed to make false health claims about the actual effectiveness of a product. But just as our diners “feel” better about enjoying Chilean seabass, tea drinkers can “feel” better about the tea products they choose. There is space for creating positive, desirable impressions while discouraging any medical expectations or claims of “results.” The power of the placebo effect has been well researched and effectively employed for many years.

Taken together, Drucker, Godin, and Sutherland create a layered framework of the key marketing levers for tea and other products. Drucker shows the importance of shaping your product & service to the context. Godin highlights the need for stories and persona that customers want to relate to. Sutherland highlights the triggers in messaging and presentation that create engaging reactions.