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Sugar Advertising Irn-Bru

Irn-Bru ads 'can't' distract the public from its sugar-reducing recipe change, can they?


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

February 21, 2018 | 8 min read

Irn-Bru has returned to the form of old with a controversial new ad campaign that has Scots calling each other 'can'ts'. It has already racked up some complaints to the ASA.

The work from Leith agency features the brand's new lower-sugar blend, launched to circumvent extra expenses incurred by the new sugar tax. The consumer response to the reduced sugar has been heated although staff at The Drum stuggled to tell the difference. But Irn-Bru is not alone –Lucozade, Orangina and Ribena are among the brands reducing sugar in the face of the tax.

The new campaign was designed to inspire a new generation of Irn-Bru drinkers, and retires the trusty 'Irn-Bru Can Get You Through' slogan of past ads. But will it help quell the controversy over the sugar reduction?

Here's what the industry thinks:

David Edmundson-Bird, principal digital marketing lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Soft drinks companies are no strangers to quirky, leftfield and ‘unacceptable’ advertising campaigns. History is replete with happy slapping.

The rapid growth of shock advertising (‘shockvertising’ – is it back?) has recently taken a turn with the virality of campaigns as they take hold on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and increasingly Instagram and Reddit. The opportunity to share these videos on dark social platforms such as WhatsApp and Messenger makes the lure of outrageous productions even more appealing. As an audience becomes desensitised to material, so material needs to become outrageous in order to attract the attention of an increasingly desensitised and cynical audience. Irn-Bru has done that, with a knowing wink and nudge to audience who get to feel they are in with the joke. Laughing at the establishment.

Manufacturer AG Barr is on the pinnacle of a product change. Its new recipe, which will contain less sugar, has been derided by some fans. Irn-Bru has to maintain its approach of giving the establishment the bird. Less sugar feels to many like AG Barr has simply given way to a nanny state, which removes the fun and sense of anarchy that perhaps drinking sugary drinks might give in a world where having things which are bad for you is diminishing. And no doubt the ASA will take a strong line. It won’t matter. Barr secretly hopes it will be reprimanded and that the ad will not be aired on TV any more. But no bother – the opportunity for pirate copies to spin virally outwards from the centre means that Leith’s work is done here.

This ad sits in a family of recent campaigns designed to surprise some, delight others and create a sense of offence in people who write letters. It matches Poundland’s naughty Elf on the Shelf (remember December’s infamous ‘teabagging’ incident?). It’s easy to pull an ad or a post or a video from a platform, but once the animal is loose, it isn’t the brand’s problem – much to the marketers' delight. And it might be a thing about Scottish brands too – Brewdog’s apparent disregard for everyone else’s rules about what is acceptable seems to be mirrored by Barr. But in order to stand out in crowded marketplaces, it looks like outrage is the current vogue for creatives. It is difficult see what the ASA can do, other than to slap wrists.

Hayley Smith, director of Boxed Out PR

I feel that the ad is slightly outdated. I understand that it is for the Scottish audience, with a Scottish sense of humour, but it lacks originality and isn't progressive. It feels very early 2000s, aimed at school kids who would probably use the mantra in the playground. It seems to have lost its footing, and the advert isn't driving the brand forward. When was the last time someone went to a foam party? Or am I just getting old?

Irn-Bru should be keeping up with its sister competitors Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and creating innovative and exciting content. Even though PepsiCo had a marketing fail in 2017, at least it tried to make the brand relevant and in line with current events. This advert just seems to be hashing out old ideas, and has an 'if it isn't broken' attitude.

The brand doesn't seem to be bringing digital marketing to the table, with not much of a call to action. Overall, it has done the job, but not very well and not with a clear audience in mind. But maybe, I'm just being a can't.

Andy Barr, co-founder and managing director of PR company 10 Yetis

My favourite namesake company needed the perfect distraction from its efforts to stop turning a country diabetic and this advert does the trick.

Instead of talking about the recipe change the great Irn-Bru debate is now all about the length of time it will take before the ad gets banned.

From a marketing and brand point of view it is a stroke of genius and I salute the entire Barr marketing team.

Featured below are some concise Twitter thoughts from The Drum readers.

The consumer response was less nuanced. The top comments on the ad (via Facebook) are mostly related to the new recipe. Although as chickenless KFC may attest, is there such a thing as bad press? The comments have a sprinkling of gallus Scottish patter to them.

Irn Bru

Of course, this is an issue Irn-Bru has been juggling ever since the original recipe change. Below is a top tweet from January.

While marketers may be arguing consumers want to lead healthier, sugar-free lifestyles, the following tweet may contradict that blanket feeling. What we have is a soft drinks company ensuring consumers that there is still a large quantity of sugar in its product. And this is not a one off tweet...

Below is the second video from the 'can't' campaign.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with @thedrum on Twitter.

Sugar Advertising Irn-Bru

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