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Small Chinatown NYC business Grand Tea & Imports gets a taste of its digital playbook


By Jenni Baker, Senior Editor

December 10, 2021 | 10 min read

Grand Tea & Imports has a vision to bring its range of Chinese teas and cultural items to the masses, but a quick digital fix wasn’t enough. The family-run business needed a marketing, social and e-commerce makeover, so a team of experts around the world assembled to offer their support – but was a taster of what its digital future could look like enough to whet the two sisters’ appetite to turn its fortunes around?

Grand Tea & Imports co-owners Alice and Karen Liu

Grand Tea & Imports co-owners Alice and Karen Liu

Grand Tea & Imports in Chinatown, New York, was started in 2006 by Mr. Liu on return from a trip back to China that rekindled his connection with cups of tea enjoyed with friends. Inspired to bring that culture to the US, he opened a tea store for local residents and visitors to relish in the flavor of his hometown and connect with Chinese traditions, cultures and fine teas.

15 years on and the small family business is now led by Liu’s daughters, Alice and Karen, who – as second-generation co-owners – sell a range of teas, spiritual, fengshui and cultural goods, ancestral worship products, Buddhist statues and other cultural Chinese items.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the two sisters had little choice but to start thinking about other streams of revenue, including marketing, social media and e-commerce. So they launched an online presence for the business at the end of December 2020. The problem was, they did it out of necessity and were struggling to utilize the channel to their best advantage.

“Karen and I are the only people who run the online store and we don’t really have capacity nor are we experts in this field so we would just Google to try and find a quick fix to patch up any problems,” said Alice Liu. “We’ve been able to catch more of the Asian-American crowd or those who already have some interest in Chinatown, but haven’t been able to branch out to a wider audience.”

The current Grand Tea & Imports website was built in response to the pandemic

Beyond a neighborhood

The business was ready for a digital transformation to elevate it to the next level and reach a broader global audience beyond the local neighborhood and clientele. Liu was always clear that the website needed some work, notably search engine optimization to ensure its content was being discovered by the right audiences.

So, as part of The Drum’s ‘Marketing can change the world’ global initiative, Meta (Facebook) and a crack squad of digital experts set out to help transform Grand Tea & Imports by equipping the owners with digital tools and knowledge to bring the small family business into the modern age.

The team, led by Tressie Lieberman, vice-president of digital marketing, off-premise, Chipotle, included Wes Morton, founder and chief executive officer, Creativ Strategies; Colin Beauchemin, founder and designer, Full Bleed Design; Melanie Mahaffey, global executive director, communications, R/GA; Matt Weinberg, co-founder, president, Happy Cog; David Kang, information security risk lead, USC; and Gayatri Sriram, digital marketing manager, India and SEA, Bacardi India.

A crack squad of experts got together virtually to find a solution

Curious about changing Chinese culture

A core part of the strategy was to branch out to a newer generation of curious Chinese Americans who grew up surrounded by Chinese culture and traditions but were never formally educated on what different things were and how they should be used.

“Until now, my sister and I have only been able to do very basic things to access that group of customers and connect with them,” said Liu. “We lack the capacity to do it better and more effectively. If we could just be able to connect with them on a social media level or reach a broader crowd, that would be amazing.”

Liu was also keen to be more strategic and figure out a regular content schedule that would help the business “be more intentional with our interactions on social media” and “drive that interaction and engagement into sales”.

The team of experts set out to identify who those audiences are and where they are, to then create content that would help Grand Tea & Imports connect with them and tell the story of what the Liu family have built and share it with the world.

“This was a very specific mission and we can use digital to do that – refresh the website design, pull in some content to help surface for SEO and implement things like Facebook Shop to give them more access to a larger community from an e-commerce standpoint,” said Lieberman.

A creative plug and play solution

The team got to work assessing the current website set up to determine where the Liu sisters might be going wrong. One of the problems, according to Happy Cog’s Weinberg, is that they “don’t do any real authority building; there’s a lot of tablestakes online digital stuff that they are not doing at all”. He spotted an opportunity to help with things like cart recovery methodologies as an easy fix.

The website also geared a lot of messaging to certain Chinese holidays and traditions, which wasn’t showing a user who didn’t know the story or how to use specific teas. More education was needed.

To help drive the business forward with a long-term solution, the team started building out each piece of the proposal – encompassing community building and PR, SEO, paid marketing and e-commerce solutions, both through its own website and on Facebook Shop.

“Our task as a marketing team was to understand the business of Grand Tea & Imports as a critical first step and then offer solutions that are bespoke to that business so they can actually succeed and expand their customer base,” said Morton of Creativ Strategies. “There’s no way I’m going to have the same level of insight into Chinese tea or cultural goods as those two sisters have, so it really came down to listening to them from their perspective and then distilling down all the things they were taking about into core value propositions and presenting that to consumer.”

With content and SEO an important challenge for Liu – but also a part of the journey that Liu was most excited about – the team presented strategies that would help the small business be more discoverable on social media by researching the search volume on Google around certain words and crafting content and blogs to reflect that and respond to what consumers are asking about. It would do this by creating website content to own tea related keywords and phrases to capture traffic whenever a customer searches for Chinese tea or cultural goods.

From our family to yours

Leaning into the recurring themes of family, tradition, and Chinese heritage, the new proposed messaging strategy focused on establishing Grand Tea & Imports as a fixture of New York’s Chinatown and a hub of tea expertise. That included a new signature ‘From our family to yours, Alice and Karen’ to feature on any communications and highlight its credentials as ‘direct from China’.

A mock up of the proposed new website

The first step for Liu to consider was having the right photography to show off the incredible merchandising and copy of the product range, at the same time boosting conversion rate and sales. Once that was set up, it would help with SEO over time. And then, highlighting ‘best sellers’ to help merchandise recommended products for consumers who are curious about Chinese culture.

The proposed content strategy includes weekly blog posts and Instagram content themes to explain things like how a Chinese tea ceremony works, pieces about different types of tea, the backstory and where they came from, the history of Chinatown and tea’s role in it, when or where to best drink tea, different Chinese holiday traditions and the cultural goods used in each.

Full Bleed Design’s Beauchemin was keen to promote an Instagram campaign around the different boxes of tea that Grand Tea & Imports sells by developing a multiple campaign schedule with “certain creative options they can just plug and play when the time is right”. And for customer relationship management (CRM), they would create an evergreen template and schedule monthly emails with upcoming offers and events.

New revenue streams and opportunities

Looking beyond that to drive future growth with new sales opportunities, the team recommended creating a subscription program featuring curated boxes of teas to expose people to Chinese culture, with each box explaining the tradition and meaning behind the teas, and how to experience them. Through a one-time purchase or quarterly/monthly subscription, this would allow the business to move through inventory while creating a recurring revenue stream and building a database for CRM. By planning boxes around key holidays, it could help drive earned impressions with media outreach.

A subscription box offering could unlock new revenue streams (website mockup)

“Putting all of these pieces in place could really drive the transformation Grand Tea & Imports was looking for,” said Lieberman.

Responding to the proposal presented by the team, Liu said: “If we want to grow this small business and grow our online business, we have to be intentional about what kind of words we’re using. As a small mom and pop family run business, we’re always in the weeds of just thinking about everyday operations and to be taken under the wing of so many professionals at the top of their game makes me feel so incredibly lucky to be part of this.”

Armed with the bones of a marketing strategy and digital playbook that would help take their business forward, will Alice and Karen Liu make the necessary changes to turn the fortunes of this family business around? Stay tuned in the New Year when The Drum will revisit Grand Tea & Imports to find out how they got on.

In the meantime, catch up here on the four-part docuseries, which follows ‘The Digital Makeover’ of Grand Tea & Imports, as well as Caurnie Soaperie in Scotland.

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