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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

May 4, 2024 | 6 min read

After an eight-year hiatus, the brand is back with a hefty investment, a new agency in London indie shop Calling and a determination to make tea cooler than coffee.

PG Tips has long been a household staple in Britain. Initially celebrated for its memorable advertising campaigns featuring its iconic monkeys and renowned comedians like Peter Sellers, Bob Monkhouse, and Johnny Vegas, the tea brand gradually lost its resonance with modern audiences.

Around a decade ago, it fell into severe neglect. The monkeys were retired, the brand ambassadors appeared outdated, and its parent company, Unilever, significantly reduced its advertising investments.

Today, it’s back on TV screens for the first time in eight years with a new brand campaign aptly titled ‘It’s Not Just Tea. It’s Progress’. For its huge return, PG Tips has enlisted legendary director Steve McQueen, with Top Boy actor and acclaimed musician Ashley Walters in front of the camera to excite a nation of tea drinkers. It’s the brainchild of indie agency Calling, which is making a name for itself by modernizing heritage brands.

“We separated the tea business from Unilever just under two years ago,” explains Karen Owen, global senior marketing executive at Lipton Teas and Infusions. “PG Tips hasn’t really been invested in for many, many years. So, we said no, this is the nation’s tea. It is the nation’s favorite tea.”

‘Rock Solid,’ which is the first ad in this new approach, forms part of a £12m marketing push that aims to help PG Tips reclaim a place at the heart of modern British culture as well as connect with a younger demographic of tea drinkers.

Owen continues: “When you look at Gen Z culture, there’s a real fear of burnout. They are not interested in coffee because that’s burnout culture; it’s pushing the problem down the road. They are much more about recovery and reconnecting with their self.”

It's an idea that Calling brought to the table in the formative chats with PG Tips. Owen says the initial storyboard had relatively few tweaks, and the whole team was beyond excited. “The way we positioned it in our strategy is that tea is recovery, not a drug,” says Calling co-founder and executive creative director Josh Tenser. “And that felt like a massive unlock for the value system of those younger audiences. And then we were like, OK, so what is it about recovery that people might want to lean into?”

Tea tends to have lower caffeine levels than coffee. Tenser says that this thought process led them to having a cup of tea while reconnecting and having a conversation with themselves.

What transpired in a powerful 70-second film tells the story of overcoming self-doubt and finding inner courage. In the spot, viewers watch as Walters coaches himself out of the doldrums over a cup of PG Tips before inviting the nation to summon their self-belief and positivity too.

Tenser continues: “We wanted to use talent that shows the world what a progressive modern Britain could be like, and that’s why Ashley is so great. He’s had ups and downs in life, they’re well publicized. He’s a hero to so many people because he isn’t perfect, but he’s been very open about his mental health.”

The other aspect that makes Walters such a brilliant choice to bring PG Tips back to the nation is that he connects with many audiences, the ones that remember him from his music career and the newer fans that know him from acting in Top Boy.

Tenser says they knew that if they were going to bring back this heritage brand, they had to have someone equally iconic behind the camera, and that person was Steve McQueen. The 12 Years A Slave director doesn’t do a lot of commercials, but apparently, this one didn’t take a lot of convincing.

“One of the first comments Steve made when he started talking with us was that tea is the lifeblood of the nation,” recalls Owen. “He grew up with PG Tips, and he said, ‘You know what, it’s really important that we write something together that is about creating moments of progress.’ So, we showed him the draft storyboard that we had, and he came up with some amazing additions.”

It wasn’t like working with a typical commercial director; everyone on the team thought about this as more of a film than an ad. Walters talking directly to the audience through the TV screen feels personal and refreshing.

“It was amazing to work with Steve; he’s a wizard,” adds Tenser. “There was just such a deep level of respect between Ashley and Steve that it made the whole thing. They both felt totally invested in each other. A different director talent combo wouldn’t have given you that beautiful comfort that you could feel in the performance.”

The ad is an address to the nation in a way. Gone are the days of the dreary grey day being made slightly better by a cuppa, this is people’s moment to take a moment of reflection with themselves rain or shine.

“It’s a real honor to be working with such an iconic British brand and be part of a campaign that encourages taking time out, putting the kettle on, taking a break and giving ourselves some time to re-calibrate,” added Walters. “We’ve all grown up with tea being a big part of our lives, marking every occasion from starting the day to a family celebration. For me, enjoying a cuppa is a moment to pause, re-gather, re-energize, focus and then press play.”

It’s a long-term play for the brand. Recently, there’s been a further £40m investment in new machinery, training and blends at its Trafford Park site in Manchester. Owen says aside from traditional media, they will be launching this campaign across social platforms too which is a key area for reaching younger audiences that are invested in the rising wellness trends. She believes firmly that tea can play a role in that.

“We’re not looking for everything to be perfect and polished. We want to understand what matters. And that’s how we’ll see the campaign evolve,” she concludes.

“We don’t know quite what’s going to happen next but what we do know is it’s going to be about progress. And Steve, when I was with him last week, he’s said, ‘So, what are we going to do next?’”

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