The concept of Or Tea? came to life in late 2009; it is tea brand that blends culinary culture and contemporary art. As a brand name, Or Tea? is a play on the frequently asked question, “coffee or tea?”, and deliberately leaves out the coffee part but retains the question, suggesting consumers should consider drinking something healthier. Or Tea? offers high quality loose leaf teas to our customers, but unlike other upscale tea brands, Or Tea? does not employ a “one size fits all” approach; each flavor is developed uniquely. In terms of flavor, we strive to provide something our customers don’t normally find in other brands. Our packaging does not use the same tin can for all teas; instead, we developed our own paper canisters and commissioned Chinese artists to create contemporary Chinese artwork for each of our flavors. Each design has a story behind it, because we want our customers to enjoy more than just a cup of tea—it’s the art, it’s the design, it’s the wit. It is a lifestyle product that has a feel-good element to it.
How long did it take to get the business up and running?
The core business took about four years to set up, and it was a journey. In late 2009, I was splitting my time between Hong Kong and Amsterdam. This was probably the best time for me to start something new, and I thought to myself, being Chinese, what is the best product for me to sell in Europe? Chinese Tea. I spent the following year researching Chinese tea and discovered that there are over 70,000 different tea brands in China, but not one of them is able to thrive in the international market. This is when my branding and creative experience came in handy, and this is how Or Tea? was born in late 2010.
We first launched the brand at Le Bon Marché Paris in January 2011, and because of the store’s profile, we received a lot of free publicity and enquiries for selling our product. Unfortunately, from 2011-2013, I was still spending a majority of my time at my branding agency serving clients. Without dedication, the Or Tea? brand progressed slowly. There are so many new things to learn when it comes to launching your own product—production, distribution, logistics, customs, sales—I would say that I had no experience with 80% of it. I had to spend time that I did not have to familiarize myself with these. I finally bit the bullet in the beginning of 2013 and diverted nearly 100% of my time to face the learning curve and overcome the new challenges. It was time well spent—I set up a warehouse in Holland, began working with sales agents in Europe, attended trade fairs of different scale, and grew the foundation of Or Tea?.
How did you get into this business?
Ever since I co-founded my second creative agency in 2001, I’ve had the idea of creating my own product, unlike the creative work for my clients, which could only be sold once. With a new client or new product, you will have to come up with something completely new. After serving clients for many years, I was thinking, why not create something for myself, something that I can sell to a multitude of customers and benefit millions of people? When the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and created Or Tea?™.
What are some logistics involved in starting a Tea Company?
I think it is similar to starting many other businesses. The question that always pops in my mind first is: why do people pay for your products or services? There should always be a mission. Once that is figured out, you should then build your strategy around it. As said before, there are many other tea brands in the world, and everyone is claiming how high their quality is, or how much value for money they are. For Or Tea?™, we started with building a strong brand and design, a combination that is so unique, it is not found in other brands.
Does HK have any legal barriers to starting a tea company?
Hong Kong is actually a very good place to start any new business. You only need to register a company and open a bank account. As a free port, I don’t think there are many legal barriers for a tea business in Hong Kong. However, since our target customers for now are mostly based in Europe, understanding how to sell a food item overseas is more of an issue. We must be equipped with sufficient knowledge of the rules and regulations of local customs, food labeling, safety consumption, etc., before we can successfully complete a transaction.
How are you promoting OrTea?
Since we are a self-funded startup, we only have a small budget for us to play around with for promotion. As soon as our target customers are defined, we study their behavior and where they do their shopping. Then we start to approach these merchants to see if they are willing to place our product on their shelves. Basically, good visibility among our target customers is one of the best low-cost promotion methods for us to generate awareness.
What’s the Tea Landscape like in Hong Kong?
Tea is an up-and-coming product, and not only in Hong Kong—it’s taking the world by storm. Starbucks, some twenty-odd years ago, projected a new image of drinking coffee to consumers. Holding a cup of Starbucks in your hand very much represented your personality—hip and cool! The trend is being set once again, but with tea this time. Hong Kong has always been an early adaptor, and growing up as a Hongkonger, drinking tea was very much part of our life. We eat dim sum with a cup of tea, play mahjong with a cup of tea. There are quite a few upscale tea brands locally that offer a premium product, but none of them can take up the role of being a trendsetter. We are already seeing tea booming in different parts of the world. It is time for Hong Kong to get ready to have a tea brand that can fulfill the demand of the many young tea drinkers. We want to change the mindset of people, so that next time, before they order a cup of cappuccino, they really consider Or Tea?.
Interview with Allen Wong of OrTea