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Scottish Marketing Association: Jonathan Kemp

By The Drum, Administrator

June 28, 2007 | 5 min read

Added fizz

There’s excitement brewing before he even takes to the stage, as talk turns to Barr’s Ginger Beer and Cream Soda. The oohs and aahs of mass reminiscing come from the assembled audience. It’s a reaction Kemp is well used to.

And despite his English roots, Kemp’s recollections of Irn-Bru come from his own childhood. “I remember going to the interview for the job and Robin Barr said, ‘Surely, with you growing up in England, you wouldn’t have experienced Irn-Bru?’ But growing up, I loved it.”

Kemp is from the industrial town of Corby which has a large Scottish population and therefore a large market for Irn-Bru. “Being from Corby put me in quite a unique position,” he says. “Irn-Bru’s UK market is now split with 60 per cent in Scotland and 40 per cent in England. It’s grown strongly in England over recent years – about 20 per cent a year – and there is still much potential there for a good brand if marketed well. Of course, Scotland remains absolutely crucial though.”

Since Kemp joined the company in 2003, the net asset value of the market value of the business has increased by £100m, “which is pretty good going in four years,” he coyly boasts. “The key reason behind the growth is that the City is beginning to see the value of brands, and Barr’s is a classic brand business. Obviously if the City values brands, it must also value marketing highly too. AG Barr made £90m profit last year and a turnover of £141m.”

Kemp embarks on a journey down memory lane, reminiscing on many of the Barr’s products that have come and gone, and the nature of the company’s marketing over the years. Along the way, now defunct and seemingly incredible products such as Barr’s Chocolate Champagne crop up, while images from the last century – the firm was founded in 1875 by Robert Barr – prove that the company has remained true to its roots.

“The turnover and profit have performed well over the last few years and there’s one reason for that,” says Kemp. “We have a great brand in Irn-Bru. When you invest in a brand for 100 years, at the end of that 100 years you have something that’s hugely more valuable than a business which is producing the same profit, but only producing this profit for a couple of years.”

Kemp also reveals that chairman Robin Barr is a real-life Willy Wonka – he is one of only two people who know the recipe for Irn-Bru and mixes each vat himself every two weeks. “And the safe within which the recipe is hidden is in the building,” adds Kemp.

“When we were moving from Parkhead [where the company was based before the move to Cumbernauld] we didn’t know what to do with a lot of the old relics. So I kept the safe that originally housed the Irn-Bru recipe. I’ve got the safe at home, and hoped Robin might have forgotten to remove the recipe – predictably, he hadn’t.”

AG Barr has long worked with The Leith Agency – which won the business in 1994 following the conclusion of the ‘Made in Scotland from Girders’ campaign by Lowe Howard Spink – building a reputation for ads that create as much controversy as they do laughter. Kemp admits that much of that controversy has been toned down in the years since he joined, but “dropping a boy in the middle of George Square on Christmas Eve” proves the brand still retains a dark sense of humour.

The Leith Agency is also behind a £1m campaign for Strathmore water – another Barr product – to “broaden its appeal outside of restaurants”.

Kemp highlights just why there is so much weight placed on the quality of the company’s products and marketing. “If you don’t have the quality, you don’t have a product,” he says. “Tango and Fanta are two huge brands. However, Tango’s brand has halved in size over the last three years and Fanta is two-thirds the size it was three years ago.

“Many will remember Tango as a great brand. The advertising was fantastic, but that just shows that if you cut the marketing budget and degrade the quality of the product, the brand will diminish very quickly.”

Irn-Bru, meanwhile, is growing in stature around the world. Kemp places much of the credit for its growth south of the border on Derek the Cuckoo and Leith’s advertising for energy drink Irn-Bru 32. “That was the first time we put an overtly Scottish advert out in England,” he says. “Sales went through the roof.”

Irn-Bru’s irreverent advertising has also been adopted by the web2.0 generation, with sites such as YouTube increasing visibility. “If I want to see an ad, I can look on YouTube and find some I didn’t even know existed,” says Kemp. “People have even started to create their own ads. One guy has made a three-minute PowerPoint presentation, The Joy Of Irn-Bru. Another has created a singalong version of the Snowman ad. You have to understand the Scottish psyche which gives us a unique opportunity to connect with the Scottish people.”

It’s heartening to know that AG Barr, a truly iconic Scottish brand, is finding a new audience just by allowing its creative communications to be just that – creative.

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