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November 29, 2009

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A brew that is true to lifestyle

THIS story started with a cup of tea some years ago in Shanghai. Not just any tea, mind you, but Pu'er tea which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906) and was a favorite tipple of noblemen of the time.

A friend brought some Pu'er tea to the home of young advertising writer Ren Xiaowen and her husband Xia Shang, and they immediately liked the taste of its mild but distinctively earthy flavor.

They set about doing research on the product and found that it had health-giving qualities.

It's purported to cut blood cholesterol, reduce the heat in the stomach and has high levels of polyphenol which is claimed to limit many kinds of bacterium and the risk of cancer.

They also found that while it was a popular beverage in Beijing and Guangzhou, it wasn't rattling the porcelain cups in the tea shops of Shanghai. Bingo!

So five years ago they set up the first shop specializing in Pu'er tea in this fair city and have since been building a significant business servicing both China and overseas markets.

But establishing black Pu'er in market as the tea to be sipped by more lips required canny campaigning.

For a start, there's a lot of tea varieties in China, and the green tea called Longjing from Hangzhou in neighboring Zhejiang Province is often claimed to be the national drink.

It's certainly the most popular tea in Shanghai, a fact not lost on local woman Ren, 31, who acknowledges that green tea dominates the market.

"When we found that Pu'er tea was popular in other cities, we believed that Shanghai people would eventually accept it because they are very open to new things," Ren said in her sixth-floor Times Square shop last week.

"We were further convinced because Pu'er was fashionable, and Shanghainese are conscious about their health and good looks."

Marketing skills

Despite zero retailing experience, they set about building their Puchake tea business from nothing and learned as they went along.

What they didn't know in some aspects of business they made up for with significant marketing skills.

The name of the company is derived from "pucha," the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Chinese term for Pu'er, and the Chinese word "ke" which Ren said was an "elegent word referring to peope doing certain stuff, such as drinking tea."

Xia designed all the minimalist packaging and branding and they hawked the tea through extensive advertising and stories in the media.

But they weren't just selling circular compressed cakes of dried black tea in their flat green and white cardboard boxes. They were selling Pu'er tea as a lifestyle habit. But a relatively expensive one.

"The oldest tea in my company was produced in the year 2000," Ren said. "Price increases with age, but not to a large amount. Compared to age, quality is a more important factor in whether it's good Pu'er tea or not. The most expensive tea in my shop is 10,800 yuan (US$1,582) for 1,000 grams, which was produced in 2004. The tea produced in 2000 in my shop is only several hundred yuan."

To position the tea in a crowded market which is dominated by more traditional methods of display and selling through supermarkets and specialty tea shops, Ren and Xia have associated their Pu'er with a modern aspirational and healthy way of living.

"We sell it in a different way, highlighting it as a lifestyle product. We are not only selling tea," she said.

"It's like a Chanel handbag. Gucci is downstairs in this Times Square complex. So it's positioned in the same market. Next year we will open a shop in a similar mall with Luis Vuitton in Pudong. This is how we define ourselves."

Ren and Xia both write books in their spare time. Ren, with a master's degree in journalism from Fudan University, has sold 50,000 copies of a compilation of short stories and two novels and eschews the high social life.

They have amassed for Puchake a client base of about 20,000 direct sales customers ordering on the Internet from around the world.

Puchake employs 20 people including two tea experts who "buy the crop from tea peasants around Menghai County in Yunnan Province" and control the quality.

Ren is very focused on the role of her company and its tea in broader society.

"Because Shanghainese live a fast life, we don't have time to think about ourselves but Pu'er tea is very slow to brew and we need to wait to drink it, so it induces a pause in our life.

"We should sometimes slow down our life and think about our inner selves. This is the idea of our Pu'er tea lifestyle."


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