Welcome to Eat Take Away! In this series we hear from brand and marketing leaders across the world on their ambitions and challenges this year and beyond. We explore their day-to-day and what lessons they have for brand teams and marketers in the fast-changing and sometimes overwhelming worlds of brand experience and delivering for customers. Check-out our three take-aways at the end.
In this episode, Daniel Poppleton, International Director at the esteemed tea, coffee and hot-chocolate brand Whittard of Chelsea chats with Eat Creative’s Head of Growth, Robert Costelloe. Daniel is based in Hong Kong.
Please note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Robert Costelloe: Great to have you on Eat Takeaway Daniel. First up, can you give us a sense of what your role involves and your day-to-day?
Daniel Poppleton: So, as International Director I'm responsible for Whittard’s performance outside the UK. But there's a UK caveat to that as well because we have wholesale business domestically which falls within my B2B remit. We trade in about 35 markets worldwide with our predominant model being partnership which can take many different forms. It can be a full-blown franchise where we appoint a single partner for a territory and they have the exclusive rights to develop the brand in that territory. In that instance, they are replicating the full brand experience. Our franchise partners in Taiwan and Korea are good examples of that. They open standalone stores where you get the full Whittard experience.
One of the biggest challenges in managing a franchise operation is brand consistency. It’s a non-stop operation working with the partner to make sure there’s consistency in the brand presentation but that there are the relevant local adaptations and tweaks to make sure the brand concept is right for that local market. You want to be standing outside the store in a local market and it should be delivering the same quality of customer experience and service. There might be tweaks with how the product range is presented or at the point of sale but we always need to make sure that our partner is keeping true to the Whittard brand experience.
"There might be tweaks with how the product range is presented or at the point of sale but we always need to make sure that our partner is keeping true to the Whittard brand experience."
RC: So which are the markets that you are prioritising for growth?
DP: When managing an international department, it’s important to avoid the scatter-gun approach. We have 9 or 10 key accounts which drive more than half of our business. And where do we focus? It’s probably not a huge surprise, but in the APAC region, it’s Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and mainland China. In the rest of the world, we have our big UK accounts, John Lewis Partnership being chief among them, and although the US isn’t one of our biggest markets yet, we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start over the past couple of years. However, the US market has a lot of challenges - in terms of just its sheer size, the strength of their domestic players, but also from a regulatory standpoint when it comes to labelling etc. But you see many of those challenges in any other market. So really our focus is our core markets in Asia, the UK and the US.
RC: And what are some of the differences in terms of product offer, experience or other brand element that you aim to deliver in those markets in APAC?
DP: We well know you can’t just group the customers across the whole region and say “This is what the customer wants”. It has to be much more refined for each market. So outside of the UK, our biggest market is mainland China. China is an exception to our partnership model because we have our own business there – we own and operate the brand there, and right now the brand is available online through platforms such as T-Mall and JD.com. We have also just started to scratch the surface of wholesale there with some sizeable orders.
At our UK flagship store in London’s Covent Garden, you’d have over 300 product options in the store. But when you’re wholesaling to the big box players, you might only be selling 2 or 3 options. And this brings a whole host of challenges. When you have a store, you have your brand proposition and your brand experience. But with wholesale, when you’re selling a small range of products, you’re trading on that product alone. There’s no real opportunity for brand experience, and you’re just another product on the shelf. And you have to compete on that basis.
"When you have a store, you have your brand proposition and your brand experience. But with wholesale, when you’re selling a small range of products, you’re trading on that product alone."
When you look at the individual markets in Asia, be it China, Japan or Taiwan, you see the strength of their own unique tea industry and culture. In Taiwan for example, importing green tea comes with a massive tax duty which makes it pretty much impossible to sell in. The customer also has a very refined, sophisticated knowledge of what they want.
In China, where we are unique is the breadth of our offer. We aren’t just selling tea. A big part of our proposition is gifting. We create bespoke products for the market that have been really successful. We have teas for Chinese New Year, for Mid-Autumn Festival – for example a lovely peach Oolong tea that comes in its own specially designed tea caddy. Hot chocolate has been the big winner for sales. We’ve got 15 different hot chocolates in the range. What we’re seeing in China is a trend of customers moving away from high sugar content to something healthier. So our 70% cocoa and 100% cocoa are really strong.
Ultimately, because we have that breadth of range, we can tailor the offer to the demands and expectations of that local market. One of the great things about the Whittard store experience is the customer can come in and taste what we have to offer. It was an interesting induction for me into the business because I joined in the depths of Covid in 2020 so I didn’t get to see the UK stores for two years. I saw my first Whittard store last summer and was blown away by how important that tasting experience is in the store environment. We can’t do that in every physical store but when you do, you can put new taste experiences in front of the customer.
"...because we have that breadth of range, we can tailor the offer to the demands and expectations of that local market."
RC: What else are you doing from an experience or communications perspective that is driving distinction and growth for the Whittard brand?
DP: The physical experience is still the best way to get the full Whittard experience because it appeals to the majority of the senses. In many of our stores, we have what’s called ‘The W Wall’ where we sell all our loose tea. In our bigger stores, there can be more than 50 loose teas that customer can smell and taste. Our Korean partners came to the UK earlier this year and just loved the experience, the theatre, smelling our milk Oolong tea or our whiskey tea. There’s so much that can be done that makes it a really fun experience. Once you see it, smell it, taste it, it’s difficult not to buy it.
In markets where we are more wholesale that physical aspect is not always possible but we can work with our partners and retailers to do tastings, demos, events and other activations. One thing about hot chocolate is it’s an ingredient. This is a nice segue into the social media side of things. Nothing beats user generated content. It’s customers telling you the product is lovely, not the brand telling you the product is lovely. We get fabulous content from our customers, baking cakes or muffins, sometimes with tea but a lot with our chocolate. We get these superb recipes and results which helps to push the message.
"Nothing beats user generated content. It’s customers telling you the product is lovely, not the brand telling you the product is lovely."
Social, of course, is massively important. In the UK we are definitely getting better at tailoring our content to the individual. If you’re a big tea drinker, you don’t really want to hear messages about our coffee. So we are leveraging that technology and ability to make our messaging more relevant. But we always have to be agile and have that flexibility to align with the different approaches and needs of a local market.
E-commerce gives you immediacy to the customer but you don’t necessarily get the data that you would from your own platform. T-Mall is a perfect example which is effectively just a giant marketplace. We can’t drill down right the way through the customer journey. So that’s why we have to be multi-channel.
RC: And looking ahead, what are you excited about for the Whittard of Chelsea brand?
DP: From a global perspective, I think we are keen to see what happens with tourist volumes in the summer months. For the UK business, we have our powerhouse stores in London that are destinations for visitors. Looking more locally, China is always exciting – well, exciting and challenging in equal measure. The regulatory changes never stop so you have to be able to adapt and accommodate that. But if you can find the opportunity to land your brand proposition in that market, then that’s the Holy Grail.Japan is not far behind. We’re there and have been for a long time, but there’s a lot more we could be doing in that market. China is our number two market outside the UK, and it’s exciting to see what the rest of this year will look like as it continues to open up. From the challenges of the last few years, it’s exciting and we’ve got to be ready to meet that challenge.
The Eat Take-Away
Pick your markets: When it comes to international growth, many brands can struggle to make their business viable long-term by expanding into too many markets too quickly. By building a foundation of core markets to focus on, brand and business leaders can better manage investment and ensure the brand experience and operations are being delivered at the right level in those markets. Here, undertaking market research is critical to establishing whether your brand proposition has an opportunity for success, build on understanding the needs and expectations of the local audience.
Look for brand extension: Searching for ways to broaden the brand offer into new experiences or product areas whilst still supporting the core brand proposition can be a tremendous source of long-term growth. From brand partnerships and collaborations with players in other industries, to finding new ways that customers can enjoy your product provides a whole host of new touchpoints to engage your audience. But understanding what your brand proposition is and making sure any new extension still supports that proposition is critical. Moving into an area where your brand proposition is not relevant can result in brand dilution and customer confusion. Be careful!
Personalise the experience: Be it customer-generated content or tailoring the content that your customers receive, more personalised engagement with your audience can drive loyalty and repeat purchases, and ultimately transform your customers from just that to true brand ambassadors that help to amplify your proposition to new audiences. Woe is the marketer who relies on the mass send-out, struck down by irrelevance and declining engagement. Invest in getting to know your customer.