What a factory of robots can teach you about humanizing your marketing
Reading the tea leaves
Sometimes content marketing lessons come from the most unexpected places - such as a mysterious factory nestled in the hills of the rocky mountains where nearly every employee is a robot.
It was on a visit here that I was shocked by the level of sophistication ... not of their technology, but of their storytelling.
The company is called Celestial Seasonings. You're probably familiar with their Sleepytime tea - a best seller globally. It's here that they manufacture one billion aromatic tea packets annually, and quietly curate their origin myth. I took their tour not knowing what I’d find and was delighted at how effortlessly they characterized the harsh and mechanical inner workings of their business as something lovable, bumbling, and, well, human.
As far as marketing and branding go, there’s a lot we can all learn.
driving traffic that's truly organic
The first thing worth noting is that these tours are free. This is where the parallels to great content marketing begin: if you're willing to make the drive out there (the main road is Sleepytime drive,) then they'll roll out the red carpet and entertain you on their own dime. Through no advertising effort, the tour is packed by word of mouth. Organic traffic for organic teas, anyone?
Only one tour group can walk at a time, however, and so I loitered in the waiting room which is a bustling tea shop unto itself which offers free samples. The barista stands by to explain that look on your face (it’s cardamom) and the interior is decorated with cutesy paintings of the artwork that graces their tea packets. Not my favorite aesthetic, but it’s consistent. I received my tour ticket. Care to guess what it was? A lemon tea packet. Same pictures as on the wall.
The level of commitment to being on-brand was impressive. Even down to workers' “safe-tea” hats.
But then, the tour finally began.
The whole journey was explained to me from the get-go. In a short film - their “about us” page, if you will - they recounted their origins as a humble hopeful hippie enterprise during the summer of love. These friends gathered herbs during their Rocky Mountain hikes, dried them, shared them, and through some mixture of luck and industriousness, expanded internationally. They quickly accumulated vendors in Egypt, Vietnam, Indonesia, and fifty other countries with whom they’ve now worked for over 30 years. Some relationships are in their second generation. When world events stir, so does Celestial Seasonings, as they’re keen to help the families of their vendors weather hardship and revolutions.
Boom. They launched that tour with an emotional depth charge and before I’d gotten the black and white images of smiling, ragged-haired hippies out of my head, I was gifted a blue hair net and whisked into the factory.
Let’s pause this story here, and consider how very right they’d gotten things: I knew what I was getting into right off the bat because their art reflects their ethos. When I signed up for a full tour, they told me where I was going, what I’d get out of it, and gave me a story that I could connect with. This then segued perfectly into Craig.
Craig is no doubt a hippie himself. An embodiment of everything we’d just been told. Though his hair was tightly trimmed, he sported a tie-died shirt and a plucky refusal to take any of us or the tour too seriously. Everything was subject to kind-hearted jokes and it’s his humor that rises above the din of memory. He was knowledgable and yet unscripted. When he didn’t know, he didn’t know, but more often than not he knew. Now back home, it’s hard to look at a Celestial Seasonings box without recalling that it's packed with the personality of people like him.
Celestial Seasonings made this tour first about people, and then about someone that I could connect with. This is important, because almost everything I saw that followed was anything but.
This factory, at more than a mile above sea level, is among the most automated in the world. With only 125 employees, perhaps 40 at any given time, they produce a global supply of one billion packets. Once inside you're blasted with the various aromas of lemongrass, cinnamon, and peppermint, and the warehouse is a maze stacked floor to ceiling with sanitary sacks of seasoning. To sate our curiosity they passed herbs around in a bowl as I meekly watched through plexiglass as mechanical Goliaths tore the bags to pieces, shook them like elephants, and then mixed the bits in great vats.
My fascination at the dystopian workforce was tempered however by feelings that the summer of love stirred in me, and humorous anecdotes from Craig and other folks on the tour. In this environment, amidst the unknown, the others along for the ride with me were friendly. There was a sense of shared awe and dare I say, community? The factory felt welcoming.
Along this tour, the doors were open to us. I learned how tea is decaffeinated (sent to Germany, blasted with CO2, and then brushed free of caffeine crystals), that their ten top selling teas don’t really contain tea (they’re herbal infusions, but sell less well under that name), and that peppermint gets its own room (the oils are so powerful that they create a fog that induces coughing and nose-bleeds).
But the facts didn’t interest me. What interested me was the unqualified transparency. There was nothing that they weren’t willing to show, and deep down I knew that I could push further, ask more questions, and receive frank answers. Through this tour, I came to really trust them.
This and one million other little touches fused the experience together into a cohesive brand narrative. Celestial Seasonings is about feeling good.
Then, all too soon, the tour was over.
As we parted Craig made a grand gesture of a gift to everyone. No, not the blue hairnets, which he vouched for personally as the key to success at eHarmony or Match.com - but the lemon tea packet tickets that got us in there.
Lessons among the leaves
In the gift shop I watched others splurge with great abandon. We were all in a daze. I’m sitting here writing this article while drinking tea that I purchased there. It was all quite spellbinding.
And it was in that gift shop that the lessons started to flood in.
As a marketer, you should aspire to have the same tightly wound brand narrative - find your truthful core - your origins and what makes you different. Wrap everything around that. When writing your blog or sending emails, make sure that it sounds like a person who embodies your ethos that's sending it.
Plenty of our business is automated these days but what Celestial Seasonings drives home is that it need not sound robotic. You can batch and send but if it's all thoughtfully wrapped up in that authentically human tone that your company began with, you’ll connect with people and earn their trust. And in this day and age, that's a currency worth its weight in gold.
You could do a lot worse than to strip your marketing of its robotic corporate-speak and just be a human.