Feature

Storm in a tin can: will the Irn-Bru brand withstand recipe revolt?

Brave advertising and a gift for myth-making have elevated Irn-Bru from mere soft drink to national treasure. But as loyal customers panic ahead of changes to the brand’s secret recipe, can Scotland’s other national drink stay ahead of its globetrotting rivals?

Scotland loves Irn-Bru – and Irn-Bru loves Scotland back. Celebrated by both the hungover and the sweet-toothed for its legendarily restorative qualities and unique taste, the brand enjoys the kind of public goodwill usually reserved for football greats. The soft drink’s manufacturer, AG Barr, has traded on its Scottishness as much as possible, whenever possible, sponsoring the lower divisions of the Scottish football league, projecting its ads on to the Unesco-protected limbs of the Forth Rail Bridge and trademarking an original Irn-Bru tartan. And in turn, Scotland’s consumers have rewarded it with sales figures that consistently trump those of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, allowing a firm based in Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire to compete with corporate giants many times its size.

Irn-Bru's national-treasure status owes much to a decades-old defiant marketing and advertising strategy. For years, it has revelled in self-deprecating humour, sending itself and rival brands up at the same time. With a long-standing association with Edinburgh-based The Leith Agency, AG Barr has established a reputation as a savvy and sharp advertiser with campaigns such as ‘Made in Scotland from Girders’, ‘Snowman’ and the more recent ‘Gets You Through’, a series of spots which appeared to offer the product’s fabled curative qualities as the solution to awkward social situations as well as sore heads.

For Phil Evans, creative director at The Leith, the brand’s advertising has had a major role in building an irreverent and cocky persona. “I’d like to think it’s had a big part to play,” he says. “The way it’s conducted itself over the years, the way the brand has behaved and still behaves across its channels... it all adds up.”

Gerry Farrell, founder and creative director at Gerry Farrell Ink and formerly creative director at The Leith Agency, where he worked on several of AG Barr’s most iconic campaigns, says that the brand’s understanding of its relationship with its customers, coupled with great campaigns, has been its secret over the years. “Well, you can't discount the brand's reputation as a cast-iron hangover cure. When you see somebody walking down the street swinging a big bottle of Irn-Bru on a Sunday morning, you know exactly what they were doing the night before,” Farrell notes. “That aside though, almost all of its kudos comes from its advertising. We're Scottish, we like cheeky ads. The cheekier the better. Irn-Bru's had the cheekiest soft drink advertising in the world for nearly 40 years now. That's a massive tribute to the bravery of AG Barr,” he says.

Full of praise for AG Barr’s enlightened approach to marketing, Farrell describes a willingness to let creatives loose on its most iconic product: “I had a chat with Robin Barr about the advertising once. He was a six foot six accountant in a drab suit and tie. He told me: ‘Personally, I don't like a lot of our advertising. But then it isn't aimed at me, is it, and it seems to work so why would I interfere?’ I nearly kissed him, tongues, everything.”

A further clue to Irn-Bru’s hold on the nation’s hearts can be found on the reverse of each can. AG Barr claims that the details of its formula, which includes as many as 32 flavourings and 0.002% of ammonium ferric citrate (the iron in the ‘Irn’), are only known by three individuals, including two members of the founding Barr family. The taste resulting from this mysterious concoction is often labelled ‘unique’, but the New York Times was probably closer to the mark when it likened it to “liquid bubble gum”.

All this should go some way to explaining why last week’s announcement of an alteration to Irn-Bru’s recipe was received with dismay from this most loyal of customer bases.

AG Barr’s declaration that it was to cut the amount of sugar present in regular Irn-Bru inspired a wave of protest over the last week. National newspapers ran editorials dealing with the subject, alongside reports of panicked fans stockpiling their favourite fizzy drink under the stairs. Online, social media users posted thousands of comments to the brand’s pages and 40,000 concerned customers signed a petition demanding the plans be reversed. Even Lorraine Kelly got involved, decreeing that the change was “crazy”. She likened it to “painting the Forth Road Bridge yellow or not having a traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington statue in Glasgow”.

In return, the brand’s marketing team spent much of last week reassuring concerned customers, telling them: “Irn-Bru will still be made with the same secret flavour essence as it’s always been. So it’ll still have its unique taste… Irn-Bru will still be a sugary drink.”

The move itself was a response, it said, to changing tastes among consumers for products with lower sugar content. It also conveniently pre-empts the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, a tax designed to target providers of excessively sugary soft drinks, due to be implemented by the UK government this April. Christened a 'sugar tax', the levy has presented a tricky issue for the soft drinks industry. Last year, a major reformulation of Lucozade Energy ahead of the levy's introduction resulted in an 8.4% reduction in sales of the product for Lucozade Ribena Suntory. A similar backlash from fans of Irn-Bru could prove expensive.

Irn-Bru’s emphasis on standing apart from its competitors has been easy to detect in its advertising over the years – would Pepsi dare to release TV spots playing on English-Scottish football rivalries? Could Coke pull off a parody of beloved Christmas animations? And while rival Coca-Cola has indicated it would rather sell in smaller bottles and at higher prices than change its recipe, AG Barr has been eager to present its recipe decision as a responsible choice taken for the wellbeing of its fans. However, the episode poses a question. Can it manage to market a cocksure, cheeky product while also being more responsible for customers’ health?

Reflecting on the reaction, Adrian Troy, marketing director at AG Barr, said: ”Irn-Bru's sugar reduction has no impact on our marketing and advertising plans for Irn-Bru. We have a very exciting plan ahead for Irn-Bru in 2018. We have a new master brand campaign breaking in Scotland in February that is absolutely true to the tradition of Irn-Bru advertising and follows on from the success of ’Gets You Through’ and before that ’Phenomenal’. We also have big plans around a certain major football tournament in the summer with the type of campaign that only Irn-Bru could do.”

According to Amelia Brophy, head of data products UK at YouGov, positive opinions of the brand have dropped sharply in the last week, especially among Scots. “It is certainly a story that Scottish people are noticing,” she says. YouGov's brand tracking data indicates that the brand's Buzz score – whether someone has heard positive or negative stories about a brand – has dropped 10 points in the last week. The opinion dip, and the widely-publicised reaction to the recipe announcement, came in contrast to wider public attitudes regarding the ‘sugar tax’, which YouGov found 62% of consumers in favour of in a survey conducted last year. Brophy notes that the issue, “strikes at the sometimes contrary nature of consumers, where they can be in favour of an idea in theory but can be less keen when it comes into contact with their daily lives“.

Farrell suggests change was inevitable. “It had to change the recipe – tastes are changing as we all know and sugary drinks with caffeine and artificial additives are in decline,” he says.

Meanwhile, Evans reckons that Irn-Bru would keep its identity intact, even without 34g of sugar in a can. “It’s a fun brand. It’s not going to change the way it tastes. [Even with the change] there’ll still be something like four teaspoons of sugar in it, it’ll still be a sugary drink. That’s not going to change. It’s not never going to be a health drink, it’s not a fruit juice or something like that.”

It will take more than a sugar reduction to dilute Irn-Bru’s popularity in Scotland, he says. “I’d like to think that it won’t hurt it. It’ll still be Irn-Bru – it’ll still be a lot of fun.”

According to Farrell, the brand’s online strategy has been lacking. “Where the brand has yet to crack it is in digital. At the moment, the online ideas are cheap and the humour's weak. I'd like to see it do funnier, cleverer PR too. Scotland has one or two amazing PR agencies who would love a crack at making Irn-Bru famous,” he says.

The recipe change, he says, is nothing less than an opportunity to reassert its marketing savvy. “My feeling is that Irn-Bru should be defiant about what it's done, not apologetic. It should hire the most creative digital media managers it can find and start taking on the moaners with a blend of charm, wit and originality,” he says.

“Now's the time to get interactive with the base. Now's the time to get out on the streets and do some crazy, funny stuff. AG Barr has nothing to be nervous about except letting its creative standards slip. That's the only risk it runs. Brilliant advertising built the brand. Brilliant advertising can keep its brave heart beating better than ever.”