Drinking tea has been a national pastime for China for centuries, and teahouses are nothing new in China. There are time-honored teahouse brands that have been brewing in local neighborhoods for more than a century. They were the most important places for social activities.
In an era that food and beverage business is all about speed and scale, these century-old teahouse brands are facing two options: staying traditional in a boutique style, or going big like Starbucks. And Wuyutai, a teahouse brand established in 1887, could be the example of how centenaries teahouses rebrand themselves.
In Wuyutai's teahouse the traces of tradition and heritage are all around, and the influence of modern interior design and cafe inspired table arrangements can also be seen everywhere. That makes it not only about socializing, but also about spending a nice time alone.
Wuyutai has been creating new products from tea, such as tea ice cream, tea mixed drinks and bakery related products to attract young consumers, said its marketing manager, Gao Ran.
"At the end of the day, we hope the younger generation will reconnect with tea and the tea culture through these new products," Gao told CGTN.
But for teahouses like Wuyutai, one of the most valuable assets is the technique for making tea. From processing the raw leaves to making special blend, new stories need to be told in more creative ways, to win the heart of the younger generation.
"We have our cultural heritage, which is jasmine tea making. We create the most perfect jasmine flower and tea blend. Now we are expanding techniques to create new blends of tea with other types of flowers like orchid and sweet osmanthus," Gao explained, adding that besides the 500 stores it owns,k mostly in northern and eastern China, the brand also relies on online retail to make sure all regions in China are covered.
Tea is not the only beverage that's undergoing rebranding in China. Popular liqueur brand, Wu Liang Ye, also took on the challenge. It has been serious about its overseas market, coming up with a few original cocktail recipes and encouraging bars to be creative, as taste is the best education.
But the home turf will always be these time-honored brands' biggest market. There was an IPO craze among time-honored brands between 2010 and 2012.
"The time-honored brands have advantages – they have reputation and the trust of the consumers. So first of all, they need to stick to what they do best," said Justin Sargent, the president of Nielsen China, further suggesting that it's time for these time-honored brands to innovate and be more contemporary for today's consumers.
"Particularly in terms of getting the message across, you need to think about new channels: how can you embrace digital, how can you personalize and how can you localize," he advised further.
That's why Wuyutai is not competing with Starbucks or Luckin coffee in the game of scale. And Gao said that Wuyutai prefers to maintain its reputation and "keep all the traditions to stay unique" rather than have an overly emphasis on expansion.
"We have a small but loyal customer base composed of heavy tea drinkers. We want to increase our sales through them, in a more meaningful way for us. We are not distracted by the modern milk tea or coffee industry to go big," Gao stressed.
"Consumers would like to try new things. Time-honored brands have prestigious heritage essence, which by definition will take a lot of time for new brands to build up. So I think the future should be bright," Sargent forecasted.
And what is Wuyutai's vision for the future? Creating a brand that will be there for a thousand years.