Doing things ‘properly’ comes naturally to Yorkshire Tea – especially with social media. Yorkshire Tea’s digital communications specialist Ollie Ratcliffe takes us behind the scenes of those viral moments and explains why he owes some of his successes to his agency roots.
With its social media prowess, the much-loved Yorkshire brand has the power to go viral instantaneously – whether it’s responding to bizarre backlash from Rishi Sunak’s endorsement on a whim or reactive, witty tweets diving into trending issues.
At the heart of digital innovation and responsible for bringing the Yorkshire brand to life is Ollie Ratcliffe, who manages the digital marketing output for two brands at Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate: Yorkshire Tea and Taylors of Harrogate.
“We get recognised quite a lot with Yorkshire Tea, we’ve got such creative license to do so many fun things,” Ratcliffe told Prolific North.
He’s received global recognition as the creative mastermind behind big-hitting campaigns like ‘Social Distancing Teapot’, where the cheeky ad put a comical spin on how office workers might tackle a proper tea round under social distancing rules.
The Social Distancing Teapot ad
“In the first wave of the pandemic it was a really lovely piece of content that was just nice to keep our brand front of mind, at a time when there was quite a lot going on,” he explained. “To me, a two-metre-long teapot was just, in isolation, hilarious!”
It’s not just about taking on teapots in the physical world, he’s worked on the roll-out of a ‘Tea-moji’ to get the nation talking on National Tea Day and simple but straight-talking campaigns such as the recent brand recognition advert in Australia.
“If you see it on your phone, or like it on your laptop, then I’ve probably touched it at some point.”
Although he’s now clearly cemented his reputation for pushing the marketing boundaries and has been nominated as Marketer of the Year at this year’s Prolific North Marketing Awards, he is completely self-taught.
Before he dipped into the world of tea and coffee, it was his work at agencies he believes helped to fuel his creative vision.
Social media world in sun-drenched Ibiza to agency life in Leeds
Working in marketing wasn’t the first and most obvious career path for Ratcliffe.
After quickly realising how “dull and tedious” his initial day jobs were, dabbling in mortgages and sales for banks, he spotted the ideal role any 20-year-old would jump at – a social media job in Ibiza.
With no previous experience in marketing or formal qualifications, he researched his way into landing a social media role at hospitality group Café Mambo and handed in his notice the very next day.
Two weeks later, he was already on his way to the sun-drenched beaches of Ibiza. There, he managed the social media channels and grew the accounts to around 500,000 followers.
“I threw myself into the deep end,” he explained. “It was a really, really fast-paced role. It taught me a lot and my boss at the time, he was ex-Facebook.”
With an “element of burnout” and wanting to come home two years later, he returned to Leeds and started working for a number of agencies, most notably Dentsu Aegis agency iProspect where he led the social media division.
Ollie Ratcliffe, Yorkshire Tea
“I’ve always been a massive advocate for agency work,” he emphasised. “For someone starting out in their career, especially for me, you soak up so much different information. You’re surrounded by all these specialists that just have really deep knowledge in each of their different areas.”
“For someone like me, who never really did any formal qualifications in marketing, it’s just all been pretty much self taught to get me to where I am today. I probably owe a lot of the successes that I’ve had to those experiences because I now know which digital levers to pull on to get the best results for the brands that we’re working on.”
Despite enjoying working at agencies, he always had an interest in elevating a brand to the next level and building out wider strategies which he was keen to explore.
“With agency, the joys of it are you dip in and out of stuff quite a lot but it’s also a bit of a negative. You never really get a chance to take a brand and own it over the course of years and watch it grow and flourish and have your own stamp on it.”
It was this desire to make a bigger impact in the brand world which attracted him towards joining Bettys & Taylors of Harrogates. Now, with two leading brands under his digital belt, he feels he has a fusion of the “best of both worlds” through a commercial focus to cement the Taylors brand and then big creative work at Yorkshire Tea.
Behind the scenes of those Yorkshire Tea viral moments
Over the years, even before Ratcliffe joined, Yorkshire Tea has been working on tweaking and defining its tone of voice.
“I think there’s a firm understanding between everyone in the marketing team on what that is, so in times of crisis when we’ve got things that are going viral and blowing up everyone can chip in effectively.
“It’s very much a case of this is our brand, this is our personality, this is our humour, really trying to resonate with that consumer that shares those beliefs.”
With a “small and agile” social media team, they’ve built up a strong element of trust so there is “very limited sign-off” which allows them to react quickly – even if it’s at 11pm.
It’s the type of freedom some brands or agencies chained by multiple layers of sign-off can only dream of, meaning they are often one of the first to have those viral moments.
“If it’s a bigger thing or we feel we’re going to get a bit more attention from it then there will be a WhatsApp exchange and we deal with it there and then.” But sometimes they have to weather the Twitter storm of unexpected viral moments – most notably after receiving bizarre backlash when former Chancellor Rishi Sunak posted about the brand.
So it’s been a rough weekend. On Friday, the Chancellor shared a photo of our tea. Politicians do that sometimes (Jeremy Corbyn did it in 2017). We weren’t asked or involved – and we said so the same day. Lots of people got angry with us all the same. pic.twitter.com/7uVmKDf7Jd — Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
“We drafted in a few more eyes on things because it was a bit more of a delicate situation. We’ve got a really strong PR team at Yorkshire Tea that are really good at sensing tone.” One angry tweeter sent a barrage of angry posts to Yorkshire Tea which led to the now infamous response from Yorkshire Tea – “Sue, you’re shouting at tea.”
Sue, you’re shouting at tea. Please do look after yourself and try to be kind to others. We’re going to mute you now. — Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 25, 2020
“This idea of narrative and this idea of personality, the example there with Rishi Sunak was actually the first time that we’ve spoken as ‘we are actually people, we’re not just a brand.’’”
Working with celebrities, key to ‘proper’ brand success and the future
Sir Patrick Stewart is just one in a string of celebrity stars lining up to work with the Yorkshire brand, which have included rock band Kaiser Chiefs and actor Sean Bean.
Sir Patrick Stewart and Yorkshire Tea.
Working with Yorkshire Tea’s PR team, Sir Patrick Stewart was an obvious choice as he’s known for “doing acting properly” and has spoken out about his love for tea which ties in with the brand’s own philosophy of ‘doing things properly’.
“We spend years honing these relationships and making sure we’re not just a brand to them, we are friends in some cases. That’s, again, what separates us out because it comes from a place of real authenticity.”
Yorkshire Tea advert with Sir Patrick Stewart.
“We try to find people that match our values, and that are already advocates of our products, or at least that we know drink tea or drink coffee.”
The brand knows its audience and how to cater properly to its fans too. Fans of The Spiffing Brit, a self-professed ‘tea lord’ and member of gaming company Yogscast, contacted the brand in their droves about sponsorship.
“His followers are brilliant; they’re literally in our inbox everyday asking about sponsoring him,” he laughed.
The big all-star ad campaigns are produced alongside creative agency Lucky Generals, which ties in once again to Yorkshire Tea’s value of making sure ‘everything’s done properly’ at Yorkshire Tea.
“We pride ourselves on this idea of ‘properness’,” he emphasised. “Everything that we do, we try to do it to the best of our ability.”
Kaiser Chiefs and Yorkshire Tea.
He recalls how Andy Nairn, the co-founder at Lucky Generals, mentions in his book about arriving at Yorkshire Tea towers to pitch for the first time and was left impressed at everything from the friendly receptionist, hard-working cleaner to the proud factory staff.
“If we are taking care of the small things then the big things, naturally, are all covered and the consumer doesn’t have to worry about that.
“That’s the thinking behind the values and everything that we really live and breathe as a brand and that’s what comes through our marketing ultimately.”
The key to success is all about “personality” for Yorkshire Tea but for Taylors of Harrogate, the team are still in the building phase about the brand’s personality.
“For Yorkshire Tea, we try and imagine ‘what would Yorkshire Tea do as a person? What would they say? How would they react in a certain situation?’ Then try to model it out from that.”
“That’s what allows us to have such creative flex and to really let that personality shine through because ultimately, we do try and be a person, as opposed to a brand that is selling tea.”
For the future, he touched on the challenges and uncertainty facing all brands at the moment as they revisit budgets and plans. Yorkshire Tea and Taylors of Harrogate are “not exempt from that”.
“We’re taking a much shorter approach, we had that long-term vision, but we’re looking at things in the short term.”
But ultimately, he added: “I hope we carry on with the run that we’ve had, the brand keeps on growing at the rate it does and we carry on producing great content with such a lovely reaction from our audience.”