What it takes to create a great tea brand, according to Ashleigh Cotterill of Tea Bird Tea

Ashleigh Cotterill Tatler

Check out our article in Tatler by Elizabeth Soong

The entrepreneur and tea enthusiast defines what it takes to create a great brand.

It is universally acknowledged that a good cup of tea can solve all of life’s problems. Countless studies have been dedicated to its myriad health benefits, and Ashleigh Cotterill couldn’t agree more. Her organic brand, Tea Bird Tea, has a range of beverages that target varying areas of concern such as digestion, immunity, hormone balance, and more.

Growing up on a farm in northern Ireland, Cotterill watched her mother add herbs and spices to her cooking, not only for flavour but also for their health benefits. “I always think that food should look like food, so I like using natural ingredients and creating all of the blends [for my tea]. There’s about 75 different ingredients in there ranging from cloves which are very good for sore throats and immunity; and a lot of them have been soaked in orange, so they give you something like a vitamin C booster. And of course, there’s lemongrass, which is really popular, and has got some anti-inflammatory properties as well. I look at the superfood elements of each ingredient and then see how we can flavour the tea with it,” she says, adding that their tea leaves are sourced from organic suppliers in Sri Lanka, China and India.

One could say that Cotterill has arrived at this point in her life in a serendipitous way. Having built a successful professional career at global companies in London has made her determined to build her own global brand, which is headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.

At Coca-Cola, she learnt a lot about supply chains and logistics; at L’Oréal, she learnt about marketing. Then at Royal Mail, she applied what she’s learnt about online UX development to her online business. Later in Westpac, Australia, she learnt about financing small businesses.

In her eyes, the sweet spot in business is not only being an excellent salesperson but also a great marketer as well. “You can have as many marketing degrees as you want, but if you can’t get your product into your customers’ hands and get them to love it, then it’s pointless, isn’t it? So I think everything has got to be a 360-degree approach where you must consider every point of the [customer’s] journey at all times.”

What she envisioned for Tea Bird Tea is to provide a great experience for her customers, from the moment they see the colourful packaging on the shelf to its wholesome flavour followed by the health benefits.

Throughout the process, Cotterill makes it a point to always ask for direct customer feedback and input that back to her products. “I have had hundreds of messages from customers telling me how great the tea makes them feel, the strong reaction they get when they smell the product, and how much they love the packaging. So I’m constantly analysing and putting it back into the product. If you’ve got a product that people love, and want, that’s your best source of feedback and then acting on that, of course.

She is referring to the time when they gradually evolved from loose leaf packs to tea bags due to customer demand. “We worked quite hard on trying to get rid of plastic so we didn’t use sachets,” says the entrepreneur who insists on incorporating sustainability throughout the entire business process. “Although our loose leaf product was about 60 per cent of our total revenue per year, customers were starting to ask for tea bags because they’d like to take it to work. So we launched the tea bags which are tag and staple-free, and biodegradable. We’ve quadrupled our sales with the tea bag offerings, overtaking our loose leaf product category.”

When it comes to the product’s design, Cotterill has always had a very clear vision on how she wanted it to look like on the shelf and how she wanted people to feel when they pick it up. She also reveals another ulterior motive: “I actually wanted to get my art into people’s houses,” says the talented artist whose illustrations on the tin have all been hand-drawn by her.

She adds, “I think when you understand what you want your brand to deliver for your customers, you have to create that essence; you can’t just farm it out to other people. You can see this when you look at large companies’ packaging and how it’s been produced. There’s very little of the original founder in that, which for me, is actually a really important part of the story.”

Cotterill says she derives a lot of colour and energy from nature especially the Malaysian jungle, which gives her a lot of fascination and inspiration. “I feel as an artist, you should always have a message. So for instance, with the jungle [illustration] in the packaging, I wanted people to feel like they’re either in the jungle or want to go for a walk there.”

She also derives a lot of influence from the likes of Henri Rousseau, Matisse and Frida Kahlo. “To me, Frida’s like an abstract surrealist artist where she paints what she sees, what she feels, and I love that; I think it’s really an interesting view in someone’s mind.”

She adds that art has greatly benefited her son, Aston, who is diagnosed with ADHD. When they were living in Australia, Cotterill wanted to fill their home with art and that’s when Aston started taking an interest in it. “He was drawing horses again and again, but at that stage we didn’t know he had ADHD,” she says.

“But during Covid, he started becoming distressed with his homeschooling. I actually ended up stopping the homeschooling and just started painting large canvases with him. I noticed that he’d go through these sketching phases a lot and what it does is, it actually calms him down and focuses him. Although art is a coping technique for people with ADHD, for him it’s definitely kind of a talent that he has,” says the  proud mum who also supports other local enterprises as well, so it isn’t any wonder that a percentage of Tea Bird’s product sales goes to Fugeelah to help support the running costs of its school.

Looking back over her journey, does Cotterill feel she has achieved success? “If I go back to why I started the company, which was to get my art into people’s houses, I’ve probably managed to get about 100,000 pieces of art into homes over the last few years. When I first went to the art galleries, they didn’t want to talk to me because I didn’t have a master’s in art. But I knew I had to do it and came up with a way to get in there anyway—so I guess that’s a pretty cool achievement. And, waking up every day still wanting to do what you do and share that with other people, to me that’s success," she says.

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