Tea drinkers who have not ventured beyond their traditional cuppa might not know this – L-O-O-B – the company which Bryan Loo founded stands for Looking Out of The Box; and not a clever concoction of his surname with him sitting as suffix.
Loo (be prepared as this effervescent young-man-in-a-hurry is immediately on first name terms with all interviewers) is the CEO of Loob Holding, the parent company of Tealive.
When we speak of TeaLive’s tea, it is not quite the traditional `boil-in-the-bag’, mug-and-saucer English afternoon pastime, it is rather totally different – it is now bubble tea time.
Originally a Taiwanese creation, bubble tea has spread in recent years to other countries and has gained widespread popularity in Malaysia.
In this AWANI Review interview, we examine the reasons Loo gives for TeaLive’s success locally and internationally.
For Malaysia specifically, Loo interestingly tells us that bubble tea is an extension of an already strong tea culture in our society.‘ We started with Teh Tarik. ‘We used to drink a lot of different kinds of tea. Black tea, green tea or matcha. Today there is a new way of consuming tea.’
We want to build a price structure that someone from Perlis buys it everyday, it doesn’t cost a bomb
This is part of the explanation as to why the drink is so popular in our country. It is just that, now, we can enjoy toppings along with it.
TeaLive maintains what he describes as three DNA that constitute the identity of the brand.
‘Three customer propositions is what we always adhere strictly to. High quality products, high affordability and high convenience. These three DNA have always been exactly who we are.’
Loo believes in creating prices that allow people to enjoy the drink everywhere and keep coming back.
‘We want to build a price structure that someone from Perlis buys it everyday, it doesn’t cost a bomb. But if you ask Perlis people to spend 15 ringgit, or 10 ringgit, everyday, can they do it? They can’t. Because the price is not friendly.’ The price of a regular TeaLive milk tea with pearls is standardised at just RM6.50 across the country.
This explains the brand’s spread to urban, sub-rural and urban areas, which contributes directly to expanding the tea drinking culture in Malaysia.
'‘We are not premium. We are affordable. Hence people can keep drinking it. So once people get hooked to it right, then we can talk about about cultivating the tea drinking culture and all that comes with it. If the product is so premium, how often can people drink? And how are we going to convert our brand into a culture?’
This is cemented by the fact that TeaLive stores are so widespread. According to Loo, convenience is key. ‘When you look at our stores today, we have seven different formats. We have stalls in shopping malls, we have street stalls, we have (stalls) in transportation hubs like LRT and MRT stations and petrol stations. So that's how we spread our stores. In universities or in schools - anywhere you go, you will see us. This means that our outlets are penetrating.’
Finally, he comes to the point of Halal. TeaLive was among the first popular bubble tea outlets in the country that received Halal certification, lending it favour in the eyes of Malaysians. To Loo, the certification proves that the brand is for Malaysia.
‘I think that helps a lot because now we can perceive that we are a Malaysian brand that is really meant for Malaysia.’
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This all contributes to the competitiveness of the brand locally and the subsequent creation of a modernised tea drinking culture. Tealive brings this with it wherever it goes ensuring a quality product that is accepted wherever it lands.
‘So when we planted our store in Vietnam, Australia, UK, and soon in Brunei, they all adhere strictly to our DNA which is high quality products but the price is super affordable. Lastly, it is very convenient," says Loo, two days prior to launching TeaLive's first store in Brunei.
If the product is so premium, how often can people drink? And how are we going to convert our brand into a culture
This is the framework that is adhered to before the inclusion of flavours that is meant to appeal to cross cultures. For this, TeaLive carries out research to create a menu that includes a mix of international and local flavours. Loo speaks about the case in Malaysia, where four to five new products are launched every year.
"Among the four to five products launched, two products have to be locally inspired," he says. "When you look at the recent flavours we launched a collaboration with Horlicks. That’s when we started to always do something that’s very localised so that we can get closer to the Malaysian community.
"Horlicks is a product that people have grown up with. People understand the product, people understand the palette. So when we do an integration with Horlicks, we know exactly this is a product meant for Malaysia. Created by a Malaysian brand, meant for Malaysia.’
The company then draws inspiration from their international menu when deciding the other three flavours to be included in Malaysia. The result is a diversified menu that includes inspiration from different cultures that is able to serve a range of palates.
"When we create international flavours for the other three upcoming flavours, we always look at our international markets to see what we’ve learnt in China, Vietnam, Australia, in the UK or in Brunei. So we’ll incorporate different cultures back into the local menu. For instance, we are bringing tea latte from Australia back to Malaysia. Next month, we’re launching our Durian flavour, which was inspired and created from our China menu. We’re taking the inspiration back to our Malaysia menu again. Those are examples of the cross learning culture in terms of our menu design."
This formula of catering to local taste buds and exposing people to new ones is the formula applied in other countries. Australia, for example, has a ‘LaTea’ (tea and coffee combined, likened to Kopi Cham in Malaysia) that was created because of the country’s infamous coffee culture.
In China, the brand has a focus on Durian and Cempedak. In the UK, there is a Southeast Asian segment that includes Pandan tea and Pandan latte which appeals to the local’s desire to try new flavours.
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Loo makes a point that wherever TeaLive opens, they target the locals. ‘If the Malaysians come and buy (our drinks), those are really bonus supporters that we have. But our ultimate goal is definitely doing the local business.’
There is a systematic process behind engineering these flavours. TeaLive has two Research & Development Centres, one in Malaysia and one in China. They keep up with flavour trends, the results of which are documented in a product library from which the company can create a yearly plan.
‘So both R&D centres keep up with what is happening around. What are the very popular flavours, the hype, what’s trending. We collect all the information and put it into our product bank. We call it our product library. We gather all the innovations in different parts of the world, put it in a product line and develop our yearly plan for products," says Loo.
We want to be at the forefront of health. TeaLive was the first in the market to launch ‘On the Go’ healthy boosters
TeaLive also aims to cater to health-conscious audiences, in line with a global shift in awareness and behaviour, according to Loo.
"We want to be at the forefront of health. TeaLive was the first in the market to launch ‘On the Go’ healthy boosters. With TeaLive plus, customers can order any drink in the menu and they can top up collagen, antioxidants, energy or vegetable fibre," Loo explains.
There is also of course the customisable sugar levels. Loo states that this is an evolution from the previous standardised model. It gives the customer control and also helps cater to those who are watching their refined sugar intake.
"We have this sugar machine, such that any customer who walks across the store can opt for their sugar level preference. They can go for zero sugar, 30%, 50%, 70%, 100% and 110%. That sugar machine will cater for all the requirements and needs of the consumer.’
This idea of consumer control is a component of a larger model that is growing in size and is employed by TeaLive, that is the Made-To-Order (MTO) model. Loo explains that it is not exactly just the bubble tea that is rising in popularity but drinks made in front of the consumer are increasing in popularity compared to Ready To Drink (e.g. canned, bottled) drinks.
According to Loo, this is what has allowed TeaLive’s continuous growth breakthroughs. It is this that helps entrench the bubble tea drinking habit into a culture rather than just a hype, while increasing incomes amongst sections of Malaysia’s population contributes to this, he adds.
"When the living lifestyle of the people is growing, they can now afford to pay for better products, for a better experience. Rather than going to convenience stores to pick up a Ready-To-Go (RTO) drink, people can actually top up another two, three ringgit to order a drink that they can customise, so they would rather go for this. Our business is trending because the MTO segment is really growing. It is because the living lifestyle of Malaysians is also growing over time.’
TeaLive’s Bryan Loo - Bubble Tea Can Be Healthy
Loo is really passionate about the brand and introducing the bubble tea culture to the world. "We have this goal which is to expand to up to 15 countries across four key continents by the year 2022. So this year we are closing about seven markets altogether."
He credits his team for the success of the brand; emphasising the point that he is not a one-man show. “I only have two hands – right?” he says.
He says his job is just to remind, motivate and excite people to achieve this mission over time.
Loo says the focus of creating a Malaysian global brand has guided the team to the heights it soars at today.
If the Boston Tea Party led to the liberation of a nation, TeaLive has far grander plans- that of conquering the world.