My favourite brand is Yorkshire Tea and, for the purposes of transparency, I’ll confess it right off the bat: yes, I am a Yorkshire-woman, born and bred (although *cough* I now live in the East Midlands).

They say that the brands we love reflect our values as people, but I think it’s more than a shared birthplace that holds this brand close to my heart. I appreciate the brand’s ‘fairness, flavour and quality’ (that’s a quote from their website), and I like its self-aware humour – it’s honest and pretensionless, like Yorkshire itself.

Still, a small scratch beneath the surface will uncover that Yorkshire Tea’s likability isn’t as effortless as it seems. In fact, it’s largely the result of a marketing challenge the business set itself in 2017.

You see, as it turns out, the UK’s black tea market is one of the most habitual FMCG markets there is. We’re a nation of tea-drinkers, and we tend to buy the same tea we grow up drinking (in my household this was PG Tips, until my mum started shopping at Waitrose and purchasing Twinings’ Earl Grey – but that’s another story).

When I left for university, I took a box of 240 PG Tips with me; there wasn’t a Yorkshire Tea bag in sight. Back then in 2004, it felt like Yorkshire Tea was the brew of choice for knitting-circles and the WI. It didn’t resonate with me at 18, and it wasn’t really on my radar at 25, 26, 27 either.

In 2020, though, Yorkshire Tea is the fourth most popular beverage in the United Kingdom (Robinsons is number 1). It has overtaken competitor, Tetley, to move from fourth to third place in the country’s tea race (Twinings have also recently overtaken PG Tips for the number one slot – I imagine it was my mum’s doing!).

Considering the marketing challenge set by the company, ‘to break a shopping habit of a lifetime’, I’d say theirs is a case worth investigating for anyone interested in marketing and public relations.

How did they do it?

I think the Yorkshire Tea brand follows Paul D. MacLean’s Triune Brain model – a neuroscience theory which divides the brain into three distinct regions. The model is useful for marketers who want to instigate behavioural change amongst consumers – just like Yorkshire Tea set out to do in 2017.

According to MacLean, the hierarchical organization of the human brain represents the gradual acquisition of our brain structure throughout evolution.

The basal ganglia was acquired first (we can call this as our ‘primal’ or ‘reptilian’ brain) and is mainly responsible for survival. This part of our brain is very fast-acting, it triggers fear, stress and fight/flight responses.  It only pays attention to important things – remember, humans have selective perception: we only see messages that are relevant to us.

Next came the limbic system (or the ‘socialiser’), which is thought to oversee our emotions. You can think of this as the home of ‘gut feelings’. It’s where we process meaning and trust and it’s responsible for attaching positive or negative sentiments to things.

Finally, we have the Neo-mammalian brain (the neocortex). This is the most evolved part of our brain. It helps us to problem-solve and think about things analytically. It’s how we plan, learn, and store complex information.

Since 95% of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behaviours are beyond our conscious awareness (they happen in the primal and social parts of our brain), it’s important for brands to package their message in a way these older parts of our brain won’t dismiss.

Yorkshire Tea and Teapot

Where everything’s done proper

Yorkshire Tea’s marketing campaign worked because it appealed to emotion, not logic. The company tapped into the older parts of our brain by using celebrity ‘national treasures’ such as Michael Parkinson, Sean Bean, the Kaiser Chiefs, and the Brownlee Brothers to promote its brand in an attention-grabbing way.

This technique is important in two ways: first, it leverages the emotions already associated with the celebrities themselves. Michael Parkinson, for example, is a proud Yorkshireman, known for putting his guests at ease and for his reassuring, trustworthy manner. The brand seems genuine and likable simply by association.

Secondly, it introduces novelty – this time in the form of humour, exaggeration, and the slightly ridiculous – to the message. For example, in an effort to ‘do things proper’ the brand asked Michael Parkinson to conduct its staff interviews. He is the best, after all!

Other TV advertisements included using the Kaiser Chiefs to play hold music ‘live’ in reception and asking Triathletes, the Brownlee Brothers, to act as couriers in the Yorkshire Tea factory. All appeal to the limbic system’s ability to bestow trust and likability.

In Conclusion

The campaign was a great success and turned a cult favourite into a national treasure, bringing tens of thousands of buyers to the brand.

Word has it, Yorkshire Tea is going after PG Tips’ number 2 spot next and I, for one, am proper proud.

Let’s have a brew.



Helen Wood is Digital PR Executive at DeltaNet International. She has worked in marketing communications and events roles for almost 10 years, telling stories about all kinds of businesses and securing coverage. Despite her current location, her heart belongs to Yorkshire.

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