Super-Hip Teabox Is Tea Made for the Future
“Tea history is interesting,” says Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram who recently spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the subject while creating a brand identity for the tea company Teabox.
Jen’s referring to where tea comes from: “We have all kinds of tea—black tea, oolong tea, green tea, white tea. But there’s only one plant that’s a tea plant,” she says. Different processing methods create the varietals you see on menus or in the grocery store, but at the end of the day, all tea comes from the leaves of one species: Camellia sinensis. The small tree is native to China, but has flourished in India since the 1800s, when, during the Opium Wars, British smugglers brought seeds there to escape China’s monopoly. Not long after that, Britain made India the world’s biggest tea producer.
Today, Teabox runs its operation out of India. Teabox is a technology company in an ancient industry. Founder Kaushal Dugar was a financial analyst whose family worked in the tea business in India. He knew firsthand that tea grown in India lingers in warehouses and on shelves before reaching the West, making it, in Jen’s words, “crap.” Dugar decided to do what many Silicon Valley startup founders have done: Cut out the middleman. He designed an e-commerce model to send fresher, more flavorful tea to the growing number of consumers buying tea. (Tea, second only to water as the world’s most frequently consumed beverage, was a $10 billion business in the United States in 2014.)
All this commerce, then and now, has resulted in a lot of wooden crates. When Jen visited Teabox’s gardens and production warehouses in Darjeeling, India, she couldn’t help but notice them. Specifically, she noticed the stenciled lettering on the side of every shipping crate. “It was used back in the day when the East India Trading Company was around,” she says. The company would use stenciled lettering because “it’s totally utilitarian and fast. With stencil you can just cut it out of a plate and spray paint, and that would have been faster than some other applications.”
The letterforms she saw in Darjeeling inspired the typeface Jen created for Teabox. She streamlined the original stencil typeface to create a slicker version for the modern age, and paired it with solid blocks of color for the packaging. The hues corollate to the tea within (like tawny brown for chai, or sea foam green for Nova green tea) or work in pairs to summon specific feeling for themed boxes like “Serenity” or “Festivitea.” Teabox’s original in-house design used some white, black, and pale-green colors, along with what Jen calls “generic” graphics. It wasn’t offensive, just lackluster. The combination of a tidy new typeface and Jen’s instructive color palette makes Teabox’s tea look more like cosmetics or gadgets than a botanical product—and that’s the point. Teabox hopes to use its packaging to demystify the expansive world of drinking tea.
Most tea companies draw from one of two retro design tropes to market their products. Jen describes the first as “a colonial vibe” that plays off the perceived history of tea as a quintessential early American product. “It’s associated with a kind of authenticity that doesn’t exist,” she says. This design habit is hard for other leading brands to shake: Celestial recently tweaked its longstanding Victorian-style logo, but only a shade. The lettering still seems like it’s meant to evoke a quainter time. Then there’s the new-age branding favored by brands like Yogi. “That whole genre, it’s from the whole Western romantic notion of Eastern philosophy,” Jen says. Ultimately, both strategies lean on caricatures of the past to sell tea.
Teabox’s brand is predicated on the future. And it appears the future will include a lot of tea. Analysts project the tea industry will continue booming, buoyed by a growing wave of health consciousness. And it’s easy enough to see how tea, with less caffeine, can charm juice-sipping, bicycle-riding, health-conscious young professionals in a way that coffee might not. Teabox is making sure to cater to them, too: Like today’s groceries, razors, and maybe even furniture, the tea ships to your door. Returning customers will also find that Teabox crunches data to recommend other kinds of tea (its inventory includes dozens of varieties). Tea might be ancient, but Teabox refuses to be.