The Irn Man

By The Drum | Administrator

June 16, 2005 | 10 min read

Jonathan Kemp

If you look at any successful marketer, there’s bound to be some mention of the leviathans of FMCG marketing, Procter & Gamble or Unilever, in their CV. Jonathan Kemp is no exception. After 12 years of P&G straight from university, the 33-year-old quit in 2003 to join Scotland’s own giant, the owner of Irn Bru, AG Barr. Since then, the manufacturer of Scotland’s other national drink moved away from its longstanding ‘the lengths people will go to for Irn Bru’ and changed it to the ‘Phenomenal’ campaign, which continued the brand’s success with awards. It also relaunched Diet Irn Bru, but resisted the urge to do a watered-down version of ‘Phenomenal’ instead going for a cheesy, Adonis character, Raoul. “Raoul had to be somebody both sexes could laugh at,” said Kemp. “He had to be odious but charming, in a funny sort of way. It was very important we got his character right. I think what we’ve had in the past is advertising on Diet Irn Bru – very limited advertising on it – that just links into the same character and equity as the main brand. Who are we trying talk to with diet? We’re trying to talk to women aged 20 to 40. Secondary target? Me. Middle aged men who have made that switch from regular to diet, very much when they get to middle-aged spread. It’s very important in the advertising that we don’t alienate the secondary target consumer. At times when you look at some advertising out there, they put all the focus on the primary target consumer and they perhaps forget there’s a secondary one there, and they actually alienate their secondary consumer.”

Although his P&G background comes through to many who have observed the change in Barr’s since he arrived, Kemp believes Irn Bru’s brand equity was the attraction for him, not the opportunity to recreate a baby P&G. “On the Sunday night I left to come up on my first day, I went to get on the plane as I was still living in Weybridge, and I kissed my wife goodbye, and she looked at me and said, ‘Don’t try and turn it into P&G’,” he said. “She can be very perceptive at times, because it’s not P&G, it’s a very different type of company. If there is an element [from my time at P&G] that has been brought in, it’s this more focus on getting a reason to believe that goes beyond brand character, which is phenomenal taste, and then adding to that a campaign, an advertising campaign, which is much more trial focused.”

That trial focus extends to the brand’s foray into new markets, aside from a £5million campaign to launch the product in the north of England, it is also spending £300,000 to launch it into Russia, which to some may seem an odd market. “Eastern Europe is a huge opportunity,” said Kemp. “We have one per cent of the Russian market, which doesn’t sound much, but one per cent of the Russian market is a big market. We sold about 40 million equivalent cans there last year. They’ve really just taken the taste to heart. In Russia, I believe they like stronger tasting drinks.” The campaign for Irn Bru there continues the ‘Phenomenal’ format, but was created by a local agency not its longstanding agency, The Leith Agency. But local is how Kemp thinks. “I think that’s the essence of communication, because they know the market,” he said. “The Leith Agency is a very important agency for us, becoming part of Cello was big news for them, but it’s still incredibly important to me that they’re a Scottish-based agency. I don’t think it’s a question of loyalty, I think if you’ve got people who don’t understand the local market, who don’t understand why Scotland is different, then you’re going to struggle with your brands.”

It was the desire to move away from the anonymous, global advertising structure to eclectic, local branding that lured Kemp from P&G. That, and a yearning to move from the south of England to a more settled environment for his young family. “There was a big drive at P&G to create European advertising,” he said. “I understand why it gives a lot of economies of scale, I understand why it saves money, and I also understand why it gives you good roll-out plans. But I don’t believe it delivers good copy, and I don’t believe it delivers good consumer communication, because by the very nature of it it’s compromising that work. I think there are some basic principles of marketing that you want to bring into a business. Procter & Gamble is a fantastic company and it builds some of the world’s greatest brands. I have to say, though, that of all the brands I’ve worked on, no brand has had as much strength in its regional area as Irn Bru has in Scotland. And I’ve worked on Pringles, Ariel, Pampers, you name it.”

Brand equity is behind Kemp’s plans to move into England. Although its much-hyped expansion plans have struggled to come to fruition, Kemp believes success lies in going slowly, slowly into England. “You’re not going to replicate 100 years in a year,” he said pragmatically. “You’ve got to understand that you’re going to build it bit by bit. I think what I’m keen to do in England is build an equity for the brand that’s stronger than the current equity. I always simplify it down to three basic things: who are you trying to talk to; what are you trying to say to them; and what’s the best way to say it to them? Now, if you looked at the strategic equity in England that we had on Irn Bru, going back three or four years. It was very much based on the brand’s character, on the fact that this brand was maverick; it was very quirky. What we’re not trying to do is conquer the whole of England in one go, that’s just not going to happen. We’ve been much more realistic and divided it up into chunks, and we’re taking it not necessarily a chunk at a time, but an area at a time. So we’re focusing on the north and the midlands to start with. You’ve also got a high level of carbonates consumption in those areas, so it makes sense to focus your effort where you get a little more reward and the media costs are less.”

Kemp takes a strict view on the marketing, bringing it down to simple terms. “I think what I’ve done, and this is probably an element of P&G coming through, is I’ve tried to say, okay, is there a reason to believe in this brand that goes beyond the brand character? I think there is,” he said. “It’s called taste. I think that’s a very powerful reason behind why people buy soft drinks; otherwise we’d all drink water. If it wasn’t for the fact that we enjoyed the taste, if it was just for the hydration, we’d all drink water. We enjoy drinking Irn Bru; it gives us pleasure.”

He acknowledges that Scotland feels an affinity with Irn Bru, something that has resulted in him feeling more affection for it than other brands he’s been involved in. “I think Irn Bru represents something a little more than a drink,” he said. “I think it’s something that people are very proud and passionate about. Working for P&G, people would say, ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say I look after Ariel, or Pampers, and people would say, ‘Oh’. In Scotland, people ask the same and when I say, ‘I look after Irn Bru’, they’re like ‘Wow’. So I think that sums up how people feel about the brand. There’s huge loyalty.”

The company’s profits faltered slightly last year, partly down to a tricky trading season and partly down to its announcement to move its Parkhead headquarters to a £17million state of the art complex in Cumbernauld. While market forces may drag its production into the new era, the glass bottles are safe for now. “I think change is an important factor in any business, but you’ve got to be very careful you’re not just changing for change’s sake,” he said. “Irn Bru tastes better out of glass bottles because the glass actually keeps the drink colder for longer, it reduces the carbonation loss and, finally, the procedure means that it’s also an exceedingly fresh product. Glass bottles may be an institution, but there are also a lot of other reasons for it. We make a reasonable return on it, and it’s also environmentally very good.” Kemp then goes on to relay a story where he comes across seven Irn Bru bottles at the recycling bin and, realising that’s £1.40 in returns profit, puts them in his car boot. You get the feeling that although he is not a Barr – there are only two involved in the company now – the brand and the company is very much knitted into him. “My wife and I grew up in Corby, which was like towing Motherwell or Wishaw down the M6,” he said. “I grew up drinking Irn Bru, I thought it was a big brand. You very much feel in the business a sense of legacy. A comparison versus a big multinational company, there you’re looking at what your next big assignment is, here, you’re much more concerned about handing on a legacy. Is this brand going to be in stronger health when I hand it on, as to when I came in? You’re very conscious that there’s a hundred years of investment gone into this brand.”

All Kemp aims to do is speed the company up a bit, something he’s already starting to do by streamlining some of the sales and distribution processes. “What I’m trying to do is take the best elements out of P&G and marry it up with the best bits out of AG Barr over the last however many years,” he said. “We’ve just got to make things move a little bit quicker at times. If this business was a car, what would it be? A Volvo, because it’s very safe, very reliable and very secure, but we probably need a Volvo T4 or T5 with a bit of a quicker engine in it.”

*All pictures taken from Robert Barr 1875 to 2001

AG Barr centenary book.


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