If you’re a Brit overseas it’s likely that at some point you’ve had a cup of Lipton tea, prominently available everywhere from America to Europe to Asia.
It’s the world’s best-selling tea brand, and you may or may not be surprised to discover that it’s British. So why is it largely invisible at home? It’s entirely adequate, if slightly weak, but attractively packaged, and evidently has no distribution problems.
The story starts in 1871, when local lad Thomas Lipton opened his first grocery in Glasgow after having worked his way around America for the previous five years. A flair for marketing – stocking the world’s largest cheese; a bagpipe and brass band parade to accompany his first tea shipments from the docks – led to his expanding to a chain of 300 shops.
Tea sales doubled between the 1870s and 1880s, and it was the working class and middle class markets that Lipton courted by undercutting rivals with a good quality product at lower prices, achieved through production and shipping efficiencies. One of these was to buy his own 5,500-acre tea plantation in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, taking advantage of low land values due to a recent coffee blight, and so becoming a producer himself.
Ushering in the 20th century with a revolution nearly as impressive as radio or television, the company claims to have been the first brand to sell tea leaves in teabags, successfully commercialising an American idea.
Big in the USA
Teabags were successful in the United States, but Britain was slower to abandon centuries of teapot tradition. It was only during the 1950s with a post-war, post-rationing explosion in interest in labour-saving products that teabags took off as a modern household convenience.
However, the various mergers that Lipton supermarkets were involved in throughout the 20th century saw their gradual disappearance, and British-Dutch multinational Unilever acquiring the tea business. By the mid-1980s, Lipton shops traded under the name Presto, which were either converted into Safeway stores, originally an American brand, or by 1998 all closed down.
While business abroad boomed, back home there just weren’t the shops to sell the tea, and in the meantime other brands, using staggeringly successful marketing, slowly squeezed out Lipton’s once-strong recognition:
Iced tea cometh
It didn’t help that for more than a century British consumers regarded iced tea with the same suspicion which first greeted teabags. Iced tea emerged in the United States during the 1870s, but became a big success following its introduction to the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. Surprisingly, it is only in 1964 that Lipton is associated with the product, with the launch of its own powder mix. Iced tea was launched in Europe in 1978, and in 1991 the familiar Lipton bottles appeared in a joint venture with Pepsi, almost assuring market pre-eminence.
You may have been on a blazing hot beach somewhere, yet somehow still yearn for a cup of tea. You discover that none is served nearby, or that it’s a tepid and undrinkable grey fluid. So a bottle of iced tea it is, and even though it may contain a rather limited quantity of extract in comparison to sugar and preservatives, it’s entirely tolerable.
As with so many other US products, iced tea has drifted over the Atlantic into British supermarkets, like Oreo cookies, or Hershey bars, which for most of my life existed only as words uttered by John Malkovich and others in Empire of the Sun.
Once again, British retailers are stocking the Lipton brand, though this time it’s in refrigerators alongside Lilt, Dr Pepper and 7-Up. Boxes of teabags are limited to fleeting, promotional supermarket appearances, but hardly compete with the household names alongside.
Do we drink stronger tea now than we did a century ago? Are international palates so dissimilar to our own? Perhaps. Though when Douglas Adams wrote of something “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe he may not have had Lipton in mind, but instead the frustration of being abroad in a hotel during the 1970s, with otherwise excellent catering but for the dishwater served in a cup and saucer at breakfast – which Lipton would claim it is the solution to.
Every year, 100 billion Lipton products are consumed around the world; it’s one of the biggest international drinks brands and almost as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, Nescafe and the like. This is quite remarkable.
A British tea company has conquered the globe. Just not the small island where it all began.