Pakistan is a nation of tea drinkers. Despite the availability of a multitude of beverages, from detox smoothies and iced lattés to laal sharbat, tea remains the most consumed drink in Pakistan, both in rural and urban areas. The nation has among the highest per capita tea consumption in the world – one kg, as against the global average of 0.79 kg – even though it does not grow tea locally. This is because tea is not just a beverage in Pakistan – it is a part of our cultural identity.

The tea category primarily consists of leaf and dust variants. Traditionally, the leaf tea palette has suited the taste preferences of urban populations while dust has owned the rural market, particularly interior Sindh, due to its taste, strength and affordability. Industry experts suggest that dust tea is approximately 20% cheaper than leaf, diffuses quickly, delivers a karak punch and lasts longer.

Two aspects of Pakistan’s tea market are interesting. First, the taste preferences of consumers vary considerably across geographic zones. In the south, people prefer a rich colour and strong flavour, but up north, preferences shift to lighter concentrations. Second, people are unwilling to change the tea they have been using for generations and this is why, despite the increasing penetration of tea brands, unbranded, loose tea (khuli patti), still accounts for 40% share of the tea market. Of the remaining 60%, Tapal is the undisputed market leader, Unilever’s Lipton is a distant second, Eastern Tea Company’s Vital has emerged as a significant third player, and the remainder comprise small brands which are strong in specific regions.

Tapal’s market leadership is a relatively recent phenomenon. The fact that a homegrown Pakistani brand has emerged as the leader in a category, historically dominated by multinationals, makes for an interesting case study.

The beginning

Tapal’s story is as old as Pakistan. It started in a small shop in Jodia Bazaar, when Adam Ali Tapal began importing Ceylon teas and developed a specialised product called Family Mixture. This was a blend of leaf and dust tea and was sold in brown thelis (paper bags). Despite the fact that two essential elements, branding and packaging, were absent, this new product carved out a niche for itself. There were many Iranian cafés in Karachi at the time where tea was the largest-selling commodity.

Due to its consistency, quality and affordability, Tapal became popular with café-goers, who, upon discovering the source of the tea, became regular customers of the shop in Jodia Bazaar.

According to family tradition, after completing his education abroad, Aftab Tapal, the third generation of the family, joined the business in 1975 and from there began a journey of innovation and transformative change. By his own admission, Tapal was interested in the tea business long before he started working in his grandfather’s shop. Although the business was doing well, he saw tremendous scope for improvement and growth.

“Thanks to the time I spent at the Central Institute of Art, I had a natural eye for aesthetics,” he said. “We were still selling high-quality tea in thelis and I realised that we would not be seen as a brand if we continued this practice.”

His immediate focus shifted on creating a brand identity through design and customised packaging. As a short-term fix, a logo was created which was screen-printed on the brown bags; this continued until Tapal launched their first branded, soft tea pack in the 1980s. Tapal’s strategy yielded results and sales increased to a point where the shop was no longer sufficient. The business moved to the company’s first factory with in-house warehouses built on a two-acre plot in Korangi in 1979. This is where the company continues to operate from.

The move to a larger set-up marked a series of strategic changes. The company was looking to break through the duopoly of the multinationals that dominated the branded tea market at the time: Unilever’s Lipton was the market leader and Brooke Bond’s Supreme was the number two brand (until Unilever bought it in the 1990s).

For operational efficiency, Tapal imported machinery from Germany that allowed tea blending and packaging to be mechanised. On the distribution side, he decided to do away with the traditional depot system and used company-owned vans for retail distribution. However, as the brand’s footprint increased, he realised that it did not make financial sense to have a fleet of vans distributing the product across the country; and so, a network of independent distributors was created in the mid-1980s. Today, the company relies on its distributors to ensure that their portfolio of more than 20 tea variants is available to customers across Pakistan, urban and rural areas included.

Even while the business continued to grow in scale as a direct result of the changes he introduced, Tapal’s interest in discovering new teas did not diminish. His encounters with tea connoisseurs from across the world led to the diversification of his portfolio. It started with Chenak in 1984, a low-priced dust tea targeting the Thar district and positioned against Unilever’s (now defunct) Red Rose. Colloquially, chenaks are metal containers used to pour tea at dhaabas. The name struck a chord with the target audience, due to the association with their tea-drinking habits, while the taste and price suited the Thari people who are daily wage earners and looked forward to a cup of tea after a hard day’s labour. The success of the brand can be gauged from the fact that the only other low-end dust brand, Red Rose, was redacted during the 1990s due to insufficient sales.

From Lanka to Kenya

The year 1988 proved to be a landmark one for Tapal with the launch of two new brands. Recognising the untapped potential of interior Sindh (where there was a growing middle-class), Mezban was brought to the market as a premium dust tea. It was not long before Mezban became the market leader, going well past Unilever’s Pearl Dust, and now controls 90% of the branded dust tea market.

Until this time, the branded tea variants available were from Sri Lanka. A friend’s recommendation prompted Tapal to experiment with a new granular form of Kenyan tea, which he branded Tapal Danedar due to its texture. This proved to be a masterstroke because the rich, golden colour and stronger taste made it an instant hit with consumers.

“Danedar was stronger than the Ceylon tea that my grandfather started with,” he said. “It was better suited to the palette of Pakistani tea drinkers due to the extra kick it delivered, and thanks to iconic campaigns such as ‘Daane Daane Pe Likha Hai Peena Wale Ka Naam’, it became our flagship brand, and eventually, the most-consumed tea brand in Pakistan.”

As these changes were taking place within the company, Tapal says that the multinationals did not pay much attention to the new player that had entered the market and he believes this worked in his favour. “I continued worked on improving the packaging and blending of our teas and it was years before we came within striking distance of Lipton.”

A point worth mentioning here is that the Kenyan teas that Tapal began importing were considerably expensive than the Ceylon teas that the market leaders were using at that time. Despite this, there was a conscious effort to ensure that the price points remained affordable for the average tea drinker. This meant that the company was working on very narrow margins compared to the competition. Tapal attributes the exponential increase in his company’s sales to an “an unwavering focus on quality and continued innovation” and this is what helped Tapal become the largest-selling tea brand in Pakistan between 2008 and 2009.

Despite becoming the largest-selling brand in Pakistan and exporting to over 20 countries, Tapal is not about to relax and enjoy being the best in the business; in fact, he has his eyes set on breaking through into new markets. He believes that there is still a lot of potential to grow within the tea category. With consumer preferences shifting from conventional teas to flavoured and herbal green teas, he is working towards diversifying his company’s portfolio by introducing new formulations in the coming months. Should he decide to look at the rural market (the company has a limited presence there), he would end up with 50% of the entire Pakistani tea market, branded and unbranded combined.

This article first appeared on Aurora.