Lipton tea is sold in almost every supermarket, and the brand is practically synonymous with the Big industrial Tea. As a result, tea lovers may be surprised to learn that Lipton previously held the designation of “farm to table” in the tea industry. This product’s tagline was “straight from the tea garden to the tea kettle.”
So, how did Thomas Lipton become the tea mogul he is today?
Lipton was already a self-made billionaire before entering the tea business. He was the Scottish-born son of an Irish grocery store entrepreneur. He established his first successful grocery store network in Glasgow in 1871, making him a millionaire by age 40.
Even more, money could be discovered among the British working class, where he saw an opportunity to expand his fortune. Tea was a popular drink among all British socioeconomic groups in the late 1800s, but it was still considered a luxury item in many houses. It cost 50 cents a pound in stores, which was out of his working-class family’s $10 weekly budget. He wasn’t convinced. Why not cut out the middleman, Lipton reasoned?
Lipton believed he could reduce the retail price of tea to as little as 30 cents per pound while still profiting handsomely. At the time, tea traders made the most outstanding money. If he wanted to reduce the price, he’d have to stop buying from them and start growing his tea. That meant he’d require a large plot of land.
He planned a “vacation” to Australia but detoured at Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, to deter potential rivals.
Ceylon was a household name as one of the world’s leading coffee exporters. However, in the late 1870s, a terrible fungus emerged, wiping out the entire cotton industry. While some growers left, others moved to tea, which proved to be a good substitute for lost cash flow.
The tea grown in the island’s central highlands had a deep, rich flavor and a golden cup, much to the delight of London tea auction house Mincing Lane. When Lipton arrived in June 1890, Ceylon was already exporting 45 million pounds of tea annually.
Despite this, land on the island was being auctioned at fire-sale prices.
“You can buy properties here for a song,” Lipton’s agent recommended.
Lipton began by purchasing five properties and soon had a dozen or more. He took two measures: planting and constructing equipment capable of managing greater output.
An 1896 Lipton advertising from a Canadian retailer’s newspaper boasts that the tea is “fresh from the tea gardens.” To sell tea, Lipton created the impression that it was grown on its plantations. However, when demand for Lipton’s tea grew, the corporation was obliged to seek supply from third parties.
Images courtesy of Book Images and Flickr Before Lipton was created in 1902, store clerks weighed tea from wooden chests and wrapped it in paper bags. Lipton devised the novel idea of selling it in the premeasured quarter, half, and whole pound packets. Standardization would be easier for shops to cope with. It would also dispel any client questions about the shop’s size or the genuineness of the tea, which is a significant benefit.
Sir Thomas Lipton’s Extraordinary Life and His Quest for America’s Cup author Michael D’Antonio told NPR in 2010 that “he genuinely produced the first consistent brand of tea that was the same from package to package, from location to location, every time you purchased it.” Because the price was half what other manufacturers were charging, it was a big success.
Lipton has established a solid reputation by providing high-quality goods at low prices. It was also advantageous for Lipton because he could use his branding on the packages. They began with a photograph of a Tamil tea plucker and the phrase, “Direct from tea garden to the tea kettle.”
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With such a big success, Lipton began selling tea not only in their stores but also through other merchants in the UK and internationally. During the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the company sold a million bags of Ceylon tea.
Lipton’s tea immediately established a following in the United States and Great Britain because of its bright yellow label and red shield. However, as Lipton’s tea became more popular, he could no longer manufacture enough to meet demand. The amount of tea he could obtain from his farms was reduced until a tiny portion of it was obtained through brokers.
“His 3,000 acres or so could not have supplied a tenth of his needs, and he was soon buying and blending where and how he could, like all his major competitors,” D.M. Forrest wrote in his authoritative A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea: 1867-1967 when his dynamic sales and advertising methods were generating a yearly turnover of millions of pounds of tea.
The common idea of “garden to teapot” had already been established: Lipton was synonymous with tea, and Ceylon was its home.
In Lipton: A Life in Tea, Alec Waugh wrote that Lipton “gave, or rather did not discourage, the illusion that all his teas originated from his gardens.” A Biography of the Century. If such were the case, “he would have needed to possess half the island.”
Lipton was a charming performer whose financial savvy helped advance his career. For years, he was recognized as the mastermind behind the spectacular prank, bringing live pigs from the farm to his Glasgow store. He announced the arrival of Ceylon tea with a brass band and piper parade, and for a time, he issued Lipton Currency Notes.
Unilever, a British-Dutch conglomerate, owned Lipton for decades and now holds the brand. Its tea is sold in over 150 countries throughout the world. They no longer have any gardens in that country, but they continue to buy their tea from Sri Lanka. These items were auctioned off only after Lipton’s death.