Irn-Bru’s decision to launch into the energy drink sector risks devaluing an established brand and is not the most obvious fit. By Catherine Turner
More than a century on from the launch of Irn-Bru, the oldest of the “youth” soft drinks is seeking to inject yet more fizz into the brand with the launch of an energy variant (MW last week).
Scotland’s “other national drink” has long been celebrated north of the border for its restorative, energy-boosting powers, but maker AG Barr is looking to tap into the lucrative market dominated by Red Bull with a “pleasant tasting” drink targeted at urban females.
While the launch is seen as a natural extension of a homegrown soft drink, some observers caution that venturing outside its youth-oriented base could devalue 100 years of consistent, targeted marketing.
“It is iconic and ironic at the same time,” says Interbrand director of brand valuation Nick Liddell. “Interbrand is quite clear about what makes a good brand – clarity and consistency. Irn-Bru has done phenomenally well managing its brand over time. It is clear about what it is. It is almost an anachronistic energy drink.”
While other brands, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have long plotted extensive variants to product line-ups, Irn-Bru has charted a steady course since its 1901 launch, only introducing a low-calorie diet version in 1980. Last year, it was revamped as a standalone brand.
The determination to keep its trademark taste at the forefront together with risquÃ© advertising has kept Irn-Bru at the forefront of the UK carbonated soft drinks sector, particularly in its Scot- tish and northern heartlands. “It lives and breathes its brand values at every touchpoint. The advertising, website, sponsorship/ all are consistent,” continues Liddell. Sales figures to October 2005 from AC Nielsen put Irn-Bru in seventh place in the UK carbonated soft drinks sector, ahead of Sprite and Tango, with a 2.3 per cent increase year on year. Yet Barr commercial director Jonathan Kemp claims progress has been more impressive. Nielsen data, he says, fails to take into account the several million units sold in returnable glass bottles.
Kemp says AG Barr, which has also owned the Tizer brand since 1972 and distributes Orangina in the UK, is committed to marketing, increasing spend while others in a declining market cut theirs.
Barr has always positioned itself as a forward-thinking advertiser: it launched the first interactive television sponsorship campaign in 1997, endorsing the ITV Chart Show. Tizer has since sponsored the MTV Europe Music Awards and, from 1999 to 2003, ITV1 Saturday morning music show CD:UK.
This is typical of the drinks maker that it continued to advertise its “maverick brand” during the Second World War, despite production being banned. In 1946, it switched to the phonetic name Irn-Bru rather than the generic Iron Brew, following government proposals to make food labelling “literal”. Although the drink contained the requisite amounts of iron, it was not brewed.
The tone of advertising has remained consistent ever since, says Liddell. From the adventures of “Ba-Bru and Sandy”, which ran until the mid-1970s, replaced by campaigns “Made in Scotland from Girders” and “Your Other National Drink”, to the “Phenomenal” executions of today, Irn-Bru’s voice has been clear and clever, he says. “The aspect it really owns is cheekiness and youth energy,” he adds.
The direction has led to various brushes with advertising regulators. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemned the Scottish drinks company last January for featuring streakers in a TV ad for Irn-Bru during a Saturday morning children’s show.
“We are very maverick in what we do,” admits Kemp. “We push the line and sometimes we step over it.”
This irreverence is something Liddell and some soft drinks buyers believe may trip up Irn-Bru in trying to reach out to an older, more sophisticated market with an energy variant.
“Barr would be wise to tone down Irn-Bru branding in the new product. It’s not an obvious fit,” says Liddell. “It is an interesting area in which to extend the brand – not the most obvious and potentially not the most logical. There are other areas into which it could expand without necessarily having to change its brand.”
One buyer adds that in launching an energy variant, Irn-Bru has a distinctive taste, and therefore voice, but may find it hard to challenge the dominance of existing market players, particularly with a brand that appeals mainly to pre-teens.
Sophie Carkeek, energy drinks analyst at Zenith International, adds that Barr must position its variant correctly and target its core market carefully in order to make a splash in the sector.
However, all agree that the 32-ingredient “secret recipe” of Irn-Bru has made launching variants almost impossible. “Clearly, taste is very important and Barr is wise not to monkey about with it,” adds Liddell.
So important is taste, says Barr, that only two board members know the recipe at any one time. And chairman Robin Barr, who for the past 35 years has fortnightly locked himself into the mixing room to create the “brew” personally, will be hoping that personal touch and his flagship brand’s quirky heritage will keep the old drink fresh and young into the next century