Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Truthfulness: Tea Companies: Be Cautious With Claims of Uniqueness

I recently read a post on SororiTea Sisters, a review of Assam Mothola White (White Assam) from Grey’s Teas. This post shared a commercial description of this tea, from the seller, which claims that "No other white teas are known to be produced in Assam." For those of you who don't know them, Grey's Teas is a tea company, based in the UK, which has quite a few interesting offerings in their catalog, such as an oolong produced in Assam, and white teas from Assam, Darjeeling, and other regions. I have never tried any of their teas though, but the company has definitely gotten my attention.

But their claim about no other white teas being produced in Assam raised a red flag for me. I'm not crazy about the passive voice ("...are known...") as it doesn't identify who is doing the "knowing" (or lack thereof). But I also had a gut feeling that this statement was untrue, when I read it. I have a good intuition for which types of teas, produced in which regions, are available, because of my work on RateTea. I did a quick check, using the powerful tools in RateTea that allow anyone (yes, you can do this too!) to search and filter for teas of a specific type or style, from a specific region. RateTea's listings of White Teas produced in Assam, India turned up 7 results:

Checking this list, I found Upton's offering (since retired from their catalogue) is indeed the same tea sold by Grey's Teas, from Methola or Mothola estate, as is the Assam white tea sold by Canton Tea Co and Stash Tea. But the other teas are different. Many are from Satrupa Tea Estate, and there are several distinct types or grades of tea available from this estate in Assam, all available through the Assam Tea Company, and some through other retailers.

So, this claim of uniqueness is an overstatement; Assam does indeed produce other white teas. I would urge Grey's Teas to update their description to reflect this!

Tea companies: be careful with claims (including uniqueness claims):

I urge companies to be cautious about making claims about your teas which depend on information that you may not have. Uniqueness is one example of this--uniqueness makes a claim not only about the tea you are describing, but about all other teas in an area or of a certain type. When making a claim of uniqueness, unless you have exhaustively travelled to a whole area and checked every estate, I don't think it's safe to make a claim about uniqueness. And keep in mind that producers and sellers may make false claims about their products' uniqueness in order to sell them, so be cautious about passing on a claim of uniqueness that a seller made to you. Instead, say: "We are not aware of any other white teas produced in Assam..."

This statement is more truthful because it speaks from your own personal experience rather than making a global statement. A global statement may or may not be true; a statement of your own personal knowledge is true.

Some ideas for rewording the description from Grey's Teas include:

  • "Very few white teas are produced in Assam."
  • "This is only one of a few white teas produced in Assam."

It is perfectly possible that Grey's tea wrote their description a long time ago, and that, when it was written, the statement was actually true. It is also possible that the company did not know of any other Assam white teas. In these cases, they could have written:

  • "As of [whatever date], this was the only white tea produced in Assam."
  • "This tea is to our knowledge the only white tea produced in Assam."
  • "When we began carrying it, this was the only white tea we knew of produced in Assam."

These claims are more truthful, and their truth does not change when new information becomes available. This is because they speak from personal experience and/or include dates or historical info rather than making a claim of universal truth. These sorts of descriptions protect a company in the long-run, because they do not require diligently checking the description in the case that something changes and the description is no longer true.

False advertising can become legally problematic:

False claims of the uniqueness of a product are a form of false advertising that can range from a legal gray area to solidly illegal.

I seriously doubt that anyone would want to start a legal battle over something as trivial as the claim mentioned above, but as a general rule, making any false statement about your company's products can open you up to legal exposure, such as lawsuits from customers, competitors, or activist groups, or action from governmental agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. It also can look bad and discourage potential customers from buying your products, especially when you make a statement that a potential buyer knows to be untrue.

To impress potential customers with your knowledge, you want to speak from your experience and limit your marketing to material you know to be 100% truthful. No one knows everything, but it often conveys wisdom when a person communicates that they're aware of exactly where their knowledge ends.

What do you think?

As a tea shopper, how do you react when you encounter a claim that seems to be an overreach? How about if you work within a tea company? How do you react when a competing business makes a claim that somehow infringes on one of the products you sell? Do you consider how things might change in the future when you write descriptions of your products? Do you think that I am being nitpicky here, focusing on a tiny point, or do you think this is getting at an important issue of truthfulness in advertising?

And do you agree that in general, speaking from your direct experience and avoiding uncertain generalizations produces more truthful statements, and statements that retain their truthfulness better as time passes?


  1. I reviewed a white Assam more than six years ago so they've been around for a while.

    1. Ahh yes, I just found this, Adagio's white Assam; that's a rather amusing introduction too. =)