Bubble tea, or boba—a creamy, tea-based drink containing tapioca pearls—was invented in Taiwan and has been spreading around the world, including into the U.S., where boba drink outlets are becoming ubiquitous at malls and elsewhere.
The U.S. bubble tea market was forecast to reach $464.29 million in 2023, up 6.9% from $434.11 million in 2022, according to Fortune Business Insights, and is expected to increase by a compound annual growth rate of 7.1% from 2023 to 2030. It is no wonder that boba chains are of interest as promotional partners for licensors of character and other types of properties, especially but not limited to those with Asian roots.
Some of the boba operators that have promoted licensed characters in their stores in the U.S. of late include:
- The Alley. From December 2023 through this month, this chain’s 12 U.S. stores—among nearly 75 locations globally—paired with the anime property Jujitsu Kaisen, licensed in the U.S. by Crunchyroll. The initiative includes limited-edition drinks tied to three of the series’ characters (Gojo, Geto, and Riko); giveaways including co-branded straw and cup sleeves and stickers; and merchandise including coasters and keychains.
- Tiger Sugar. In August 2023, this operator, which has close to 70 shops in the U.S., announced a tie-in with Hello Kitty. The effort included a special strawberry flavor, Hello Kitty Crush, served in an exclusive Hello Kitty cup, as well as a limited gift offering of collectible sculptural cup holders featuring the character. Tiger Sugar has paired with Hello Kitty in other countries around the world where it operates as well, as have other boba chains globally over the years.
- Kung Fu Tea. In July 2023, Kung Fu partnered with Nintendo to promote the latter’s game Pikmin 4 in its more than 350 U.S. shops. The initiative featured a special flavor sold in limited-edition cups, as well as straw caps featuring the three main characters. This effort followed a similar tie-in to promote Pokémon Go in May, which involved limited cups along with stores converted to PokéStops and Gyms. Kung Fu has also paired with other properties, including Hersheys for Hershey’s cocoa, s’mores slush, and s’mores coffee slush flavors. Unlike the chains listed above, which were founded in Taiwan, Kung Fu was launched in Queens, New York, in 2010.
Similar promotional programs are common globally as well, both in Asia and beyond. A few examples over the last couple of years include Sweet Dynasty featuring six different Pokémon characters on special teas in its stores in Japan, Sharetea in Australia highlighting the game Elder Scrolls Online in five special bubble tea flavors available for online ordering and in stores, and Gong Cha pairing with Heinz for a controversial ketchup-flavored boba tea in Singapore. Global chain Chatime alone has paired with Chupa Chups in Australia and across Asia, singing group BTS’ BT21 characters in Canada, SpongeBob in the Philippines, and Hello Kitty in the U.K., to name a few examples. Tea shops in mainland China, Taiwan, and elsewhere in Asia, both traditional and boba, are particularly active as promotional partners.
Boba tea brands have also occasionally ventured into outbound licensing and collaboration deals. Kung Fu Tea partnered with Spirit Halloween last year for five Halloween costumes, for example, as well as a limited-edition boba flavor, cup, and straw cap. Similarly, Malaysian-headquartered chain Tealive paired with dUCk Cosmetics in 2020 for a limited edition of five different shades of lipstick named after the chain’s boba drinks.
The growing interest in boba tea shops as promotional partners fits within the context of other global licensing trends involving both tea and Asian-rooted restaurant chains. IP owners have been actively partnering for tea-centric gift sets in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as tying in with a variety of hotels, cafés, and other locations, especially in the U.K., for character and other property-based high teas. And chains in the West that specialize in Asian foods, including ramen and sushi restaurants, are following in the footsteps of their Asian forebears in pairing with licensed properties for menu items and other promotional elements.