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If the US is transforming into a nation of tea-slurping geezers, Unilever does not want to miss it.

Lipton Unilever Tea
AP Photo / Jordan Strauss
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By Matt Phillips
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Starbucks isn’t the only company betting on an uptick in tea consumption in the historically coffee-fueled US. At its heart, the wager on growing tea sales is based on US demographic trends. Would-be tea sellers think that as baby-boomers continue to age they will want to downshift their intake of heart-rattling java, and switch to a more healthful alternative. And tea sales have been rising in recent years, including a 2% increase in 2011, according to market research firm Euromonitor.

But Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant Unilever doesn’t plan on taking any chances. In a conference call with analysts after its strong earnings results today, Unilever chief Paulus Polman spotlighted plans to beef up investment in Unilever’s Lipton brand of teas. Lipton is the best-selling tea in the US, with about an 18% share of sales. But its sales have been declining. In 2011, they dropped about 3%.

Frankly we have under supported the Lipton brand – tea brand there, literally under supported in quality and product. And that is never a long-term strategy. We’ve reinvested and continue to reinvest in quality and product and you start seeing the results. So, I am fairly positive that that business—bar a quarter here or there for different reasons—but that business is on the right trajectory.

As to whether the US will ever switch to a nation of tea drinkers, count us skeptical. (It’s something you drink when you’re sick, right?)

Expect to hear a bit more about Starbucks’ vision for tea in the US when it reports earnings on Jan. 24.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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