Teapigs, Tetley, Tata and telling the absolute truth


Smoke & Mirrors from Teapigs


I like brands which are transparent. I was cross and mortified when Innocent sold a big stake to Coca-Cola, but it felt like there was no hiding it. Bit the same with Pret and McDonalds.

So I was a bit miffed when someone told me that Teapigs belonged to Tetley. I’d never looked into it, I have to admit, but just felt like it was always portrayed as some young, plucky upstart in the world of tea. I had no reason to doubt the person, and posted a tweet:

Which led to some interesting similar responses from other people, but also one from someone who I would respect, who told me that they aren’t and that she had asked them the direct question. And Teapigs seemed very keen to tell us that I hadn’t got the right end of the stick:



Except I rather began to wondering. There usually really is no smoke without fire, and no one involved had anything to prove by getting this wrong.

So, here’s my view, having asked some direct questions of Teapigs, and not really getting a full answer.

  • Teapigs are not owned by Tetley, but only on the basis that the owners are Tata Global Beverages GB Limited. Who also happen to own Tetley.
  • According to the accounts lodged at Companies House for 2010, and also accessed through the Tata website, Tata own 100% of the shares, meaning none of the Teapigs’ directors had any shares in the business at that point in time.
  • Tata had put in over £1million over a number of years.

Louise at Teapigs did respond to my initial email, but I would say not entirely directly to the questions I posed. I am sure that to the now 9 people involved it does feel like a small business, and that they work hard for the results they have achieved. But to me, and I think to many who responded to my original tweet, the ownership and funding put it a long way from our personal definitions of a small start up.

Louise also didn’t, reasonably, want to share what stake her and her fellow director had in the business, but as they own no shares, it’s hard to work out how that could be financial, based on that last set of accounts. She also said in her email that they’d both given up jobs in a corporate environment, and that if Teapigs had failed then they’d have been out of a job, which felt like a risk to them. I think many of us can relate to that, but many who are running small businesses have a lot more to risk than just their jobs. Like life savings, any equity in properties, even the houses (and homes) themselves.

To me, you can set a business up any way you like. You can be owned by who you like. Just don’t expect us not to be disappointed when you turn out to be something different to how you portray yourselves. Maybe you’ve even convinced yourself that you are a small business. But to most of us, when you’re owned by a huge multi-national, we may well have a different view.

You may well have set out to “get great tea into the hands of British tea drinkers”, you may well have a great tasting product. But if we want to support a small, independent business, then you’ll forgive us for moving our tea buying somewhere else.

For the record, I checked. And I’ll be buying my tea from Bellevue Tea and Lahloo Tea. Both independent, both doing great tasting tea in my view. And both risking more than just losing their jobs. At the end of the day, we all make our own choices, I would just say make them for the right reasons, on the right basis.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr, had an appropriate title to reflect my personal view.


Update 3 April 2012

I just wanted to add a quick update as a few people have asked me. To date, I have not had a response from Louise at Teapigs to my second email, which was really asking her to actually answer the questions I had put to her in the first mail. Personally, I think that that is a very poor way for a brand to tackle difficult questions. I guess we will all draw our own conclusions.


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Helen Tarver

Collector of great gifts and fabulous food, mum, cake baker & eater, wine opener. I write about food and the gift of it in its many forms.

37 thoughts on “Teapigs, Tetley, Tata and telling the absolute truth”

  1. Really balanced post on an interesting issue.
    We all get emotionally attached to brands (and indeed thats what they want us to do) so when they turn out not to be quite what we thought from their own portrayal then we are justifiably confused and disappointed.
    There are many ways to set up and run a business and many ways to raise finance to grow. They are choices all businesses make and the brand and story you tell the public needs to stack up with all those things otherwise at some point a mismatch will happen like seems to be the case here.
    Thanks for highlighting the issue.

  2. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Lynne says:

    An excellent post, Helen, I wish that they would stop fluffing and just state outright their position. Sadly, their story just doesn’t match up to the financial evidence, and Teapigs don’t seem to want to explain the dichotomy.

    None of us has any drum to bang, but the more it feels underhanded, the less people will like the brand. It is not good PR.

  3. Agree completely, be whatever you want, but be clear and transparent about it. Or else don’t be emotional when we are disappointed in you.

  4. Agree. In these days of access to info being available to everyone within a few clicks, it would seem like PR suicide to me to try to be less than transparent.

  5. Great post Helen, I totally agree. Clearly they feel like they’ve sold out to be so guarded and it seems like their decision to do so sits badly on their own consciences. Success relies on passion and if they still had that instead of a big bank balance transparency wouldnt be an issue as they’d be capable of convincing us they are still on the right mission – as you said, who cares about the company structure really, but no-one likes a cheat.

  6. That’s an interesting perspective. I am not sure I had considered them to be “cheats” but definitely a little economical with the full truth and disclosure. What makes me more cross is trying to put across that there is full disclosure, when my view from what I’ve been sent, and seen from other replies, is that is not currently what most of us would think has happened.

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    Gower cottage says:

    Well unearthed Helen….think PR and always think..Honesty is the best policy ….theyve not done themselves any favours here and I personally feel cheated 🙁

  8. Our mothers were always right, see. The truth will out no matter how you dress it up.

  9. Yes, I had spotted this article as I did my research, and did ask Louise at Teapigs about it. In fact what I asked here was on the back of the article was Teapigs what many of us think, that you started this up on your own, or did Tetley agree that it was a great idea and that they would set it up and fund it, then spun it off, as the article says. Sadly she didn’t address this in her reply, and I’ve still not had a response to my second email, so can’t throw any further light on it, other than what we can read for ourselves.

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    Rahul says:

    Shame on companies like tea pigs who under the facade of ‘small is beautiful’ approach pretend to be an independently owned company when the truth is a giant like Tata global beverages is behind them pumping millions behind them to destroy other small companies. I am gong to write to Mr. tata who talks all about ethics etc.

  11. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Wendy says:

    I just read an article about Teapigs and Louise Allen specifically in London’s Stylist magazine [http://www.stylist.co.uk/stylist-network/work-life/louise-allen-professional-tea-taster#image-rotator-1] and in it she says: I left my job at Tetley … to set up Teapigs in the UK with my friend Nick. I searched for teapigs because I had an issue with a claim from Louise that she went to work at her office in Kew–when teapigs is, as far as I can see, in my neighborhood of Brentford. I thought perhaps she was putting on a few airs and graces (can you see her apron?)…

  12. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Fred Wilde says:

    My wife works at Pukka Herbs- they are an independent British tea company that make really tasty, organic herbal teas. I know she’d love the marketing budget that Tea Pigs have at their disposal- through Tata.

    Talking about the hypocrisy of other ‘ethical’ brands- did you know that Body Shop (reknown for their pioneering stance on animal testing), was bought out by L’Oreal one of the biggest animal testers in the world and Liz Earle, reknown natural skincare brand was bought out by Avon, also testers on animals and cheap chemical based cosmetics.

  13. Thanks Fred, I like Pukka Herbs a lot too. I spent 5 years working at Body Shop over a decade ago, so know the view that existed internally about L’Oreal at that time. Worth just reflecting though, and in no way endorsing the practice, that there are very few firms, in any industry, that can truly claim that their ingredients have never been tested somewhere, sometime on animals. The current finished product might not be, but it’s hard to claim the ingredient has never been.

    Whether Tea Pigs tea is tested on pigs…well, that’s a whole different story!

  14. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Ian says:

    Sadly this is a story that we true independent tea producers are all too familiar with. All we can do is make sure people have the full facts at hand when making purchasing decisions.

    We know we can’t compete with their marketing budget so we just have to beat them on taste, quality and good old fashioned customer service.

    We’re always pleased when someone converts to our teas from one of the big players – even if we have to charge a bit more. Quality always wins in the end!

    Shameless plug coming up: http://www.teasme.co.uk for superb tasting organic teas, hand blended in UK. 🙂

  15. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Andrew says:

    Should you not judge the product on it’s own merits? Is it objectively a good tea? Either way it matters little who owns it. It says more about the way our society is more concerned with the surface and sheen rather than the core function of the product. If you are persuaded more by how ‘folksy’ a something appears rather than how tasty the tea is you may have your priorities in the wrong order, and are the main reason companies use these methods. Go with your taste-buds!

  16. Andrew, that’s an interesting perspective, and I can see that that could be the one and only test you apply to whether you buy something. I guess my personal perspective is that I like to support interesting, independent businesses who make great products that taste good. I wouldn’t support someone who made poor products, regardless of their business structure. But as I want to know where my pound is going, who is it benefiting, is it staying in my local economy for example, then I want to be clear what I’m supporting. As I said originally, I don’t really care how Teapigs choose to structure themselves, as a customer I would just like them to be upfront about it, or at least answer questions directly.

    Given that there are so many truly independent businessess now offering fantastic teas, then I can spend my money elsewhere, but then that’s just my personal preference.

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  18. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    MSHEL says:

    I know it’s a tad off topic but Macdonald haven’t owned any shares in Pret a Manger since 2008. Their 33% stake was ruining business so they sold their shares, I’m glad to say! It’s a mistake ‘Pret’ are still paying for, as it is hard to convince consumers that Mucky D’s does not, nor ever really did OWN them.

  19. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Ange says:

    Andrew has a point: if your brand loyalty extends to shopping with someone because their products meet your standards then that’s fine.

    But honesty, whether it is in marketing or corporate governance, will have an impact on perception of a business to those whose shopping habits consider not only what a business sells, but *how they do business*. A simple question: if a business is less than honest about its ownership, then what *else* is it hiding? Branding is, after all, a matter of perception and there are plenty of good reasons why businesses of any size will either buy (outright or via a majority or minority shareholding) other businesses. Forgive me if I happen to believe that hoping your customers won’t have the patience to trawl through Companies House records or the databases at Dun & Bradstreet’s Who Owns Whom, just to find out who you are actually spending money with is not a good way to demonstrate to them that you deserve their trust or their money.

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  21. Very good points, particularly your last one. Of course, there are still loads of people who don’t care, or have the economic luxury of being able to care, about where their money is going, and I can understand that for some. But where you can, and choose to, make conscious decisions about where your money goes, then you’d like to find businesses not trying to make it difficult for you to find out.

  22. Thank you, I don’t know why I had missed that bit, was still under the impression they were involved. Like you say, still paying for a decision. Will go back and read up more on this.

  23. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Little Miss Lulu says:

    I am a massive Teapigs fan because I like the product. Isn’t that why most of us are fans of any brand? If you like the tea, then to be honest I don’t see why it matters who owns what, and to dig around for dirt in this way suggests that you have a lot of time on your hands. I am sure that if you dig deep enough in any company you will find “disagreeable” things – product suppliers, product testing methods, labour conditions, whatever – and I don’t see that this means the company has been deceitful. If a company is obliged to put every little detail on their pack, just where does this stop?

    Big isn’t always bad – I am sure everyone who has posted on this page owns big brand products created by big multinationals. Not all of them are bad. It’s not as if Tata are the Gestapo. Get over it.

  24. Well, an interesting perspective. Though of course one person’s digging around for dirt is another person’s being well informed.

  25. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Amy says:

    I think the main issue with it is not the fact that they are a big company, it is the fact that they deliberately deceive people into thinking they are a small company.

    It is not even that they started small and were taken over – they started with £1m capital and the 100% backing of Tata Beverages. Their branding, company story etc has all been aimed at making people think they are independent. I think it is awful that they could not even be honest when you asked them directly, and even worse that they ignored you when you emailed them again!

  26. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Pand says:

    What about Teapigs so called ‘ethical scheme’?
    They claim to support an orphanage in Rwanda and make a donation from every pack of everyday brew that is sold. However I don’t think there is a lot of information supporting this, and for all we know a ‘donation’ could be a penny..???
    Personally I don’t believe any ‘ethical’ claims unless I see a fairtrade certified symbol.

  27. I haven’t looked at this. I think the best schemes are really transparent so you know what you’re really supporting.

  28. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Bobby says:

    I think it’s disgusting how they market themselves as a unique and independent company when they are anything but. The fact that they now have a stronghold in shops such as waitrose and whole foods simply because they had the financial clout of Tetley’s behind them where another smaller/independent company could have succeeded is frankly unjust.

    We are the 99%.

  29. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Keith says:

    Thanks for the expose. I was aware teapigs were owned by a big global corporation. Yours was the only reference to this I could find.

    To say her job is at risk, is no more at risk than someone who works for a global corporation.

    And yes, it does matter who owns a company.

    The big brands, ever aware of consumer boycotts, are now hiding behind front companies.

    I am now warning any small coffee shop, tea shop or deli, who pride themselves on sourcing locally, supporting small businesses.

    Lunch and afternoon coffee in Italian coffee shop

    This disingenuous behaviour is not unique to teapigs (and if you want quality tea, why not simply buy loose tea). The most recent example is fake indie coffee shop Harris + Hoole aka Tesco. Harris + Hoole is 49% owned by Tesco.

    Harris + Hoole: A fake indie coffee shop

  30. Warning: trim() expects parameter 1 to be string, object given in /home/thefood2/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-user.php on line 203
    Martin Fell says:

    I run a specialist tea house in Glasgow, Tchai-Ovna est. y2000. One day in 2009 the guy who set it up walked into my tea shop in the south of Glasgow. He said that he had special teas the likes of which had yet to be seen in Glasgow. We do about 100 kinds of leaf tea and after a short kind of tea off, he pee’d off. His story, consistent with the website, was that Teapigs is an independent company. It is very upsetting that companies like this have the money to dupe people on mass, with no risk, and seemingly no conscience. It is difficult to compete with that in terms of resources, but at least we have quality and honesty on our side.

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