Retail in Asia


Long live the bubble tea trend! EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Chatime Group CMO

At a time when the cost of shipping tea and other ingredients globally and from Taiwan has risen by up to five times, the bubble tea market acrossthe globe is growing rapidly, as markets such as Australia return to normal.

The tea-based drink originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and is essentially a drink served with tapioca balls or other flavourings. Initially popular in Asian communities, it is now making inroads across cultures.

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As one of the giants of the bubble tea industry, Chatime began its expansion outside Taiwan in 2006 with an outlet in California,and continued to Australia in 2009 with 70 outlets, followed by Malaysia in 2010 and India in 2012. Further expansion followed to the UK, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

As one of the keynote speakers at the eTail Connect Australia Event, which took place on 6th and 7th of September, Retail in Asia had the opportunity to speak with Chatime Group CMO Joanna Robinson. Our discussion was around the company’s marketing communications across different regions, how Chatime has adapted to the shift in consumer behaviour during the pandemic and what’s next for Chatime.

RiA: Can you give a short introduction of yourself?

Robinson: I am a senior Consumer Goods Marketing Professional with more than 25 years of Blue-chip multinational FMCG experience with companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate Palmolive, and Estee Lauder.

I have extensive experience in FMCG, Retail and Luxury Cosmetics and Fragrances with Estee Lauder, L’Occitane and Tom Ford across Australia, North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey. I was based in Dubai, UAE with Unilever, and Estee Lauder for 6 years, returning to Australia in 2014.

My international marketing experience covers both Consumer & Customer Marketing as well as Sales National Account Management, enabling me to develop a strong commercial mindset and leadership skills.

I joined Chatime in Dec 2020 as CMO which represents my first move into the QSR space. I am also a sessional lecturer at the University of Sydney in Marketing and Leadership.

RiA: With outlets in 50+ countries, how is marketing communications different across regions? What speaks to the Australian market in particular?

Robinson: We have 3,500 outlets in 53 countries now, with the brand originating in Taiwan in 2005.

We moved into Australia in 2009 and will reach 150 T-Brewery stores nationally by the end of the year.

The marketing communication strategy for our brand is similar globally in that we all target a young Hedonistic audience (14-28 YOs are our core target). This means that digital is an extremely important communication channel to engage this audience and personalisation is also key. However, from a cultural perspective and in line with our multi-cultural population, in Australia, we have been able to drive relevance both with an Asian and Western audience which has provided us a competitive advantage vs some of the other players in the market.

Our vision in Australia, is “To be the most loved and accessible drinks brand in Australia, sparking curiosity in everything it does.” We believe that Chatime embraces the experience of the bubble tea drink and captures and communicates in a way that resonates with our core audience. We leverage digital innovation as much as possible in our T-breweries, across our app, and via our communication channels, and we aim for an omni-channel footprint to drive accessibility to consumers, multi-channels including supermarket DIY bubble tea kits to reach as wide an audience as possible.

RiA: What is the hardest part in communicating the artisan of Taiwanese tea making with Australians? 

Robinson: Probably the hardest part is articulating the beauty of this process in a way that does it justice but also resonates with an Australian audience. We are fortunate that our master franchisor, La Kaffa, provide beautiful quality assets for us to leverage across our communication channels to help facilitate this. We also have the benefit of over nearly 20 years as a global brand which has enabled the storytelling of Taiwanese tea-making to evolve and to now link to the bubble tea category.  In addition, the evolution of digital channels has meant that we have more channels available to tell the stories we need to and in a visually compelling way that our young audiences respond to.

RiA: How has Chatime adapted to the shift in customer behaviour due to the pandemic?  

Robinson: There were several ways that Chatime pivoted during the COVID-19 crisis. As a business largely generating revenue from dine-in and takeaway stores primarily located in shopping centres, we focused on driving stronger aggregator partnerships and delivery services to keep servicing the market. It was about staying relevant and accessible.

From a marketing perspective related to customer communication pathways, we dialled up acquisition into our loyalty programme via digital messaging across our app and social channels. Our brand now has 1.17M highly engaged loyalists on our Loyal-tea database who we constantly engage with to “surprise and delight” with new product innovations, rewards, and experiences.

Source: Chatime

In line with driving accessibility of our brand to as many people as possible, we launched our DIY and Ready-To-Drink kits into Supermarkets at the back end of 2021, specifically partnering with Woolworths to shake up the traditional tea aisle in the channel and introduce bubble tea as a new segment within the category. We launched phase 2 this year with 6 new skus being ranged in Woolworths.

From a CSR platform, we proudly support youth-oriented charitable organisations Canteen and Headspace, as well as a partnership with Student Edge, as we believe supporting young people has never been more important, especially having seen the impact of COVID and lockdowns have played on them over the past few years.

RiA: With the introduction to the Chatime mascots – Slippery Jam, U.F.D, Tee-Haw, etc, is Chatime trying to focus on its communication with the younger audience? What is the customer demographic for Chatime at the moment?

Robinson: Consumer research is at the heart of everything we do. We work with a research partner, Retail Doctor Group, to conduct deep dives into the heartland of our target audience to really understand what makes them tick so that we can better engage them. We define them as 14-28 YO Hedonists, from a demographic and psychometric profiling point of view, and then we directly engage them in their language, on their communication platforms.

We also specifically focus on leveraging technology in order to engage our young audience. A recent AR campaign: Satisfy Your Strange, created with creative agency Special Group, saw strange digital characters brought to life as AR experiences. This provided great cut through for the Chatime brand and delivered solid sales and brand awareness driving results.

Another way that we deliver to a Gen Z target is to drive constant product innovation, showcased in global brand collaborations such as Philadelphia Cheese and Oreo (Mondelez).

RiA: What is next for Chatime?

Robinson: We are still focused on strategic growth for 2023 onwards, maintaining our commitment to ongoing business transformation, driving accountability and profitability across the business. We will continue the focus on digital investment, with one example being our e-commerce channel going live at the end of this year; drive additional distribution channels for our Chatime FMCG range; expansion of our domestic regional growth strategy; and international expansion with New Zealand and USA markets being explored.

From a marketing perspective, we will continue to drive acquisition into the brand with relevant, disruptive TTL communications, and retention via our ever-expanding, award-winning loyalty programme. As well, we will continue our digital transformation project with more technology enhancing experiences in our T-breweries via our kiosks, app, and HDTV screens.

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RiA: What do you expect to get out of eTail Australia Connect 2022? And can you give us a sneak peek on what you will be sharing with the audience on the panel?

Robinson: I loved the chance to engage with my industry peers at the e-Tail connect conference and to learn from other’s experiences. As a speaker, I feel honoured to be able to share the insights around Chatime’s latest AR technology campaign, Satisfy Your Strange, which resonated so well with our Gen Z audience and delivered fantastic sales and brand awareness metrics for the business.