As of 2019, tea cleanses or tea detoxes are a fairly well-known phenomenon. Odds are good that if one heads to their social media feed of choice, they can find at least one online acquaintance currently raving about the benefits of their tea diet.
The subject can be controversial – some tea cleanse enthusiasts subscribe to the fasting method, wherein the user consumes pretty much nothing but tea for a week to 10 days. Those methods, however, have mostly fallen out of favor and deemed fairly unhealthy. Even the most dedicated devotees of drinking antioxidant-rich tea as part of a healthy lifestyle tend to accept that it is not a reasonable substitute for food.
Instead, the more common path for tea detoxes and cleanses is as a supplemental add-on: The consumer drinks a cup or two of a specially balanced tea elixir each day, and in return experiences a host of health benefits including cellular detoxification, bloat elimination, flushing out of water weight, skin clearing and higher energy levels.
But as ubiquitous at the tea detox craze is today, tea was far from trendy six years ago. When Bec and Tim Polmear got started in the tea business in 2013, their manufacturing hub was in their Tasmanian garage – and they did not anticipate that they were on the verge of kicking off an international health and wellness trend. Initially, they were just messing around with ingredients from a local pharmacy in hopes of finding a tea-based remedy to help Bec’s issues with indigestion.
Once they had their tea – and an entrepreneurial vision of selling it to others – Flat Tummy’s goal was to operate efficiently, which is why Bec and Tim ran the business out of their house. It meant, as Tim told PYMNTS, that they were profitable as of day one.
But the insight the Polmears gained early on was about influence marketing, and the power of getting the right endorsement from the right place.
“We got Healthy Always from New Zealand to promote our tea via her social channels to more than 100,000 followers. We had 17 orders in an hour and thought we’d struck gold,” Polmear recalled.
From there, the brand’s go-to-market strategy became nearly entirely Instagram-focused – and more targeted. Employees searched Instagram not just for influencers, but for those with the right kind of influence. As former employees told The Guardian, the ideal model was a woman with at least 100,000 followers and a host of other attributes that made them “on-brand.”
“They had a rating system, depending on how ‘on brand’ you were,” explained one of the former employees. “You don’t want someone who already has a six pack. You want a mum who is on her fit journey trying to lose weight after having kids.”
A representative of Flat Tummy did push back on that characterization of the brand’s Instagram strategy in an email to The Guardian, noting that they collaborate with a mix of many different types of women when seeking influencer ambassadors.
“Women can experience bloating, digestive issues or anything else in between, no matter what their size,” she noted.
Ultimately, the Flat Tummy Instagram brand was able to build a highly effective algorithm that could accurately predict the effect a given influencer would have on pushing the brand’s line of detoxifying teas (and, eventually, lollipops).
“We could predict sales before even collaborating with influencers. We had year-on-year growth of 700 percent while owning and running the company,” Tim Polmear noted.
By 2015, Flat Tummy had 500,000 Instagram followers of its own, and the Polmears officially sold off the company for $15 million to Canada’s Synergy CHC Corp. The brand has continued to grow – today, it has 1.7 million followers on Instagram and a large cadre of celebrity endorsers.
But it has also become an epicenter of controversy. When the brand made its first major marketing push beyond Instagram, in the form of a Times Square billboard, it attracted a vociferous Twitter backlash among those who said its products were appetite suppressants masquerading as health and wellness products.
Scientific experts have also pushed back on Flat Tummy (and other brands offering tea cleanses) as basically a form of health and wellness “snake oil” – unlikely to hurt anyone who consumes it, but equally unlikely to have the desired impact.
And while Flat Tummy has not directly responded to any of these complaints, in the last month or so the firm has expanded its focus into becoming wider health and fitness brand, beyond just selling shakes and other nutritional supplements.
Last month, the brand officially rolled out its latest offering, the Flat Tummy Lifestyle app. According to the brand, the aim is to give women a simple, effective way to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle through a better set of digital tracking tools.
“Since the beginning, we’ve always had one mission: to help empower women to lead happy, healthy lifestyles and be the best versions of themselves,” a Flat Tummy brand manager noted in an email. “Introducing this lifestyle app into our brand is such a positive and exciting step forward for us, and it allows us to continue on that mission. We’ve put a lot of time, research and effort into this app and worked alongside industry experts in the process, so we’re looking forward to sharing it with our community of 2.5 million women.”
The app comes at a cost: A subscription runs around $20 a month or $120 a year. That includes access to customized workout plans, diet plans as well as a social aspect that allows users to interact, offer support, post before and after pictures and, on the whole, participate in a collective fitness experience.
Will it work? Well, Flat Tummy broke into the market by building an online community – albeit one built around paid influencers who were already popular. Whether the same kind of loyal community atmosphere can be created around subscription workouts remains to be seen. But if the tea cleanse craze is on the verge of being heckled down by doctors and Twitter users, it seems to make sense for the company to build a backup.