Tea For Who? Celestial Seasonings’ Packaging Mistake

Some of you might have seen in the trade press the recent packaging mistake that Celestial Seasonings made in its 2015 brand refresh of its tea line. (If not, you can catch up on New Hope and Marketwatch.)

A quick recap: In an attempt to woo more mainstream shoppers, Celestial Seasonings toned down the quirky illustrations that had been on their packages for decades, whittling them down to a more iconic simplicity. In the process, the brand alienated its core natural channel shoppers, who then responded vociferously.  They let the brand know that they found the new boxes boring, difficult to find on the shelf, and ultimately made the ritual of their tea experience feel empty.

The company finally responded to this tempest in a teakettle by bringing back the old illustrations in a reactive refresh that’s just rolled out. The whole story sounds a lot like the “Old Coke/New Coke” controversy from 1985, when the company made an error and then was able to position it as, “We are now listening to our customers.”

But why did the Hain Celestial Group, a large CPG with a market cap of $3.73B, make this huge mistake in the first place? Why didn’t they take their core consumers into account from day one? Let me offer some tea and sympathy…

Two Tea Brands, One Misstep

When the news first hit, I scratched my head a bit and a feeling of déjà vu came over me. Hadn’t we been through this before?  We were working on the brand strategy and launch of the Organic India Tulsi tea brand when we saw Yogi Tea (another beloved brand within the natural tea space) make the same mistake.

Yogi had built its visual brand expression around unique, iconic imagery drawn on a tea cup for each SKU of its herbal tea line. In an attempt to reconnect the brand to the growth of the yoga community in the US, they completely eliminated each and every cup illustration.  These were replaced with swirling henna patterns that they believed represented a touchpoint new converts to yoga would find aesthetically pleasing, but that ultimately watered down the core meaning of the Yogi brand and had no connection to the SKU flavor or functional benefit.

This created the effect of a tasteful but ultimately bland billboard on the shelf, and rendered the brand meaningless to new customers.  It also alienated their core customers, who we would watch frustratingly navigate the tea section, trying to find their favorite SKU and ultimately giving up. Needless to say, their SPINS share dropped precipitously.

Ultimately, the company went through two more reactive refreshes that restored more of the recognizable symbology of the tea cups and flavors.

The Branding Lessons In Packaging Mistakes

I hesitated to write about this at first because there is a lot of confusion in the natural products industry about branding, and more often than not, companies equate branding with a logo and packaging design.

In our work at Pure Branding, we hold that those are just expressions of the brand — the brand itself is much deeper, as it reflects the beliefs and founding impulses of the organization, and how it then connects to the beliefs of its participants.

We’ve seen too many companies, just like Yogi Tea and Celestial Seasonings, misunderstand this guiding principle.  They then make a huge tactical error with the hope of expanding reach, but that comes at the expense of their core consumers, ending with a loss of sales and consumer trust.

We understand that packaging feels like an easy fix and how tempting it is to modernize what your brand stakeholders may feel like is an outdated design. But unless you know how your participants reflect and relate to your brand, you may find yourself modernizing away the visual elements that resonate most with your customers.

Packaging feels like an easy fix, but unless you know how your participants relate to your brand, you may find yourself modernizing away the visual elements that resonate most.

So what insights are lacking that would cause brands like Celestial and Yogi to make these mistakes of focusing only on the growth opportunity and not the core? In the segmentation research we conduct as part of any strategic rebranding, we’re able to map out the different persona segments that fall into a brand’s sphere of participation.

More often than not, we typically find a sweet spot of brand positioning and communication that has the highest potential of reaching a wider audience, but doesn’t alienate the core participants who built the brand in the first place.

If Yogi and Celestial paid attention to these truths, their packaging refreshes could have been everyone’s cup of tea.