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  • Writer's pictureKanhaiya Maheshwary

The evolution of India's chai culture - The marketing and consumer behavior behind Chai!

For something that didn't originate in India, we've done incredibly well to make Chai our very own and popularize its consumption across the globe. In fact, several attempts are made by cafes all over the world daily to emulate the classic Indian chai, but (mostly) in vain. I am actually sitting in a cafe writing this, with a huge blackboard menu chalked out right in front of me. It has a "lavender chai", and a "morning glory chai". And while I don't know how they taste, I don't think I am ever going to spend $5.50 on chai! In fact, Starbucks has ruined the Indian chai by coming up with a 'chai tea latte' and giving millions of westerns the wrong impression about how Chai tastes. Starbucks' version is nothing but sweetened cinnamon milk.

But coming back to Chai, nothing quite comes close to describing what chai means to India and Indians. It is an emotion; it is a companion in happiness and sadness; it is a reason to bond with people over; it is the perfect beverage of choice while having conversations about anything under the sun from politics to economics. In fact, almost every single day of my undergrad and MBA (both these were situated opposite to each other), I remember visiting one of the two chai tapris (street side chai stall - India has millions of them and you can find them at the corner of most streets. Pic below for reference) right outside the college gates. I've had some of my best ideation sessions and business discussions with friends at those tapris.

Out of the few things that India has the Britishers to thank for, Chai is one. Chai originated in China well over 2000 years ago, and the English got to taste it sometime in the 1600s. It is said that Emperor Shen Nung and his cavalry, who lived sometime around 2737 BC, were resting under tea trees when the Emperor asked his servants to bring him some boiled water. A few of the leaves from a tree fell into the water, thereby giving it a very nice, distinct flavor. The Emperor loved it, and this is apparently the first cup of tea recorded in history. However, the credit of popularizing the practice of tea drinking goes to the Shang dynasty (1500 - 1046 BC), and then to the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 AD).

Since hundreds of years, Indians have always prepared something known as 'kaadha' (herbal, ayurvedic concoction meant for treating cold), and some Indians argue that it is an ancient form of tea, as old as the Chinese tea itself. The style of preparation is in fact quite similar to how the Shang dynasty did it. The big difference, though, is that there are no tea leaves involved in Kadha and therefore I'd say it isn't actually tea - it may be a cousin.

Around 1557, the Portuguese and Dutch started carrying over tea from China to Europe for the first time. "Tcha", as they called it, was rather expensive and cost as much as £26 per pound (over £2,600/pound as per today's economy). The Britishers aristocracy and upper class had got hooked onto tea, but didn't like how much of silver they had to give away in order to procure it from China. Around 1788, they began thinking about getting a few saplings from China to India in order to start growing it locally (India was getting completely under the British rule by then), but as luck would have it, a British-Indian duo by the name of Robert Bruce and Maniram Dewan discovered tea leaves in the Indian regions of Assam and Darjeeling (present day West Bengal). In fact, they even tried to steal tea plantations from China in what is now a very interesting incident.

The Great Tea Robbery

After the British East India Company's trade deals with China failed in 1833, the then Governor-General of India William Bentinck established a Tea Committee, under which they sent Charles Gutzlaff and George Gordon to China in order to study the ways and means of extracting tea. The trip was not quite as successful. But in 1843, an independent Scottish traveler by the name of Robert Fortune went to China and spent 3 years there, after which he published a book titled "Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China". Impressed by his findings, The East India Co. actually commissioned him to smuggle tea leaves and dyes back to India. Along with his servant (whose head he got shaved had him do makeup to look like a Chinese person), he traveled through Shanghai, Hangzhou, to the mountains in Wuyi Shan, and then to the tea plantations of Zhejiang and Anhui. He presented himself as a traveler by the name of Mr. Sing Wang, and the get-up was so good that no one even suspected! At the end of it all, he was able to smuggle 13,000 plant samples and over 10,000 seeds hidden inside glass bottles via Calcutta into India.

This heist is actually responsible for getting the western world to understand the science of tea much more deeply.

This incident, known as the Great Tea Robbery, has been depicted via paintings and articles at various places, including the Smithsonian Museum.

Robert Fortune, who undertook the daring task of smuggling tea from China

Surplus of Tea imports in UK & subsequent advertising

The teas smuggled into India were planted at Darjeeling, and owing to the difference in soil and temperature, what came out actually had its own distinct flavor. It was so well received that the Darjeeling tea was an is still known as the "Champagne of Teas". By then, the British East India company had already started popularizing Indian Tea across Great Britain, and the imports of Indian tea (86 million pounds) had already outweighed those of China (80 million pounds) by 1850. And by 1900, the ratio of Indian tea to Chinese tea imported in US became 90:10. In fact, an Indian Tea Agency put out this advertisement, which was very well received by the English people:


An old ad popularizing the Indian Tea in London

And while the Britishers were slowly colonizing India, at the same time they were getting colonized by the Indian tea.

Marketing Tea in India

As the growth of tea in India exceeded the amount that the Britishers could consume, they actually had to setup the Indian Tea Association in order to devise ways to market the excess. This association did the first job of marketing tea to Indians, who until then weren't tea drinkers by the way! Tea was just not a part of our day to day living, given it was a foreign concept, and expensive too.

The Indian Tea Association started propaganda and encouraged mines and textile unit owners to introduce a 'chai break', were the workers would be served teas. This move was strongly supported by the independent tea stall owners, who found this as a great opportunity to increase their sales. This move turned out to be a huge hit, and the demand for and the consumption of tea increased domestically.

A Brooke Bond Ad in Bengali, circa 1920

But the real masterstroke came in the form of marketing tea as a beverage at railways stations. Around the time of World War I, this Tea Association put up huge hoardings at railway stations of Bengal, Punjab, and Frontier Provinces. Small time sellers at the railway stations started selling chai to tired travelers when the trains made a brief halt. And given how expensive tea leaves were, they started mixing more water, and spices like ginger and cardamom. And even though the Tea Association didn't appreciate the usage of less tea leaves, they noticed that the Indians enjoyed their tea this way much more so be it.

And thus was born the Indian Masala Chai!

Today, the railway station chai is revered and enjoyed. Imagining a railway station without chai and the familiar sight of chai-walas is simply akin to imagining your own morning without a cup of chai! And we all have the Indian Tea Association and the Tea Market Expansion Board to thank for it.

A railway station chai wala serving tea to a train passenger

A look at Consumer Behavior through Chai's Advertising

The way Chai is advertised in India reflects the consumer behavior and the state of the society.

Concept: Breaking Taboos

Ad 1: Brooke Bond Red Label - Surprise Visit

Theme: Live In Relationships

India is definitely evolving and leaving some bits of orthodoxy behind but live-in relationships are still not as common. You will find them gaining more acceptance in metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi etc. but largely, it is still not a comfortable topic of discussion with parents, especially in middle class families. This ad explores how chai creates that connection between people which can break barriers.

Ad 2: Brooke Bond Red Label - Neighbors

Theme: Inter-religious Interactions

It seems like Brooke Bond was on its way to break many taboos at once! India is a beautiful land of diversity, with a majority of people from every religion mostly co-existing in harmony. However, there are still segments of the society that have a stigma around dining with people of different religions. This ad captures how tea is one of those things that brings people together irrespective of their religious backgrounds.

Concept: Reference Groups (Artists / Aspirational)

Advertiser: Taj Mahal Tea

In India, artists are often stereotyped as people with a certain personality - long hair, wearing traditional Indian clothing, deep thinkers and so on. Tata Tea actually created its entire positioning by connecting it to artists and to the Indian classical music. Over the years, some of Taj Mahal's famous ads have featured Tabla legend Ustad Zakir Hussain, Santoor exponent Rahul Sharma, and more recently classical singer Nirali Karthik.

Ad 1 - Ustad Zakir Hussain

Ad 2 - Rahul Sharma (my favorite Santoor player, and one of my all time favorite musicians)

Concept: Social Groups (Family / Friends)

Advertiser: Wagh Bakri

The bonds that people forge over Chai is unparalleled. Wagh Bakri explored this concept in its series of ads where it showed some lovely connections between a son and a dad, two friends, and so on.

Ad 1 - Dost Wali Chai (The "Friend" Tea)

Ad 2 - Dad Wali Chai (Dad's Tea)

Concept: National Culture

Advertiser: Tata Tea (Jaago Re)

Every 5 years, India conducts its parliamentary elections to appoint the Prime Minister. And every single time, you will always find slackers who are not interested in voting. Also, the candidates who stand to receive the votes often have a questionable background. Tata Tea wanted to change this behavior and many more around the elections through its series of Jaago Re (Wake Up!) campaigns.

Ad 1 - Go and Vote

Ad 2 - Interviewing the Politician

Advertiser: Society Tea

Another form of national culture in India is its obsession with tea (which is pretty much what this entire blog is about!). Recently, Society Tea tried to highlight this national culture through an ad showcasing the various regions of India right from Tamil Nadu to Himachal, and the various touch-points as well as seasons when Chai is consumed. The overarching message? Chai is omnipresent, and one might argue, omnipotent! You can read a comprehensive piece on this campaign by clicking here.

Ad - The Society called India

After saying so much, I don't think I have much to say besides this - Chai is forever.


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