Made in Scotland from girders... and less sugar


January 05, 2018

by Gareth Pritchard

As someone who’s spent a considerable period of time in Scotland, I still keep in touch with much of what’s going on North of the border. Over the past 24 hours I’ve noticed something trending on social media, something close to many Scottish hearts. 

Irn Bru are changing their recipe.

At this point I think it’s important to wedge in the fact that Irn Bru outsells Coca-Cola in Scotland, one of only a handful of countries that can make the claim that Coca-Cola isn’t the number one selling drink. It’s quite a big deal in Scotland – so this is BIG NEWS.

We know sugar, and sugar reduction specifically is a big challenge for many at present, we’ve already published several blogs on renovating or reformulating products and how best to communicate any changes to increasingly sceptical consumers. Whilst this process has already been undertaken for several products, Irn Bru has the added complication of being seen by many as Scotland’s national drink! (Probably best not to mention that too loudly around our (whisky loving, Scottish) company Chairman, mind you!). The mere whisper that there’s going to be a change to the recipe has been met with almost patriotic worry, resulting in the stockpiling of original recipe cans before the new ones arrive on the shelves – even before getting a taste of the new recipe!

This brought to mind the furore when Lucozade reduced the amount of glucose in their product. Several people made the point that the glucose in the drink was a positive thing for medical purposes, particularly for illnesses such as diabetes. Others argue they would happily pay more for the original recipe, but how true that would be is anybody’s guess.

On Twitter, the Irn Bru account has been very open in answering consumer questions about the change in recipe. After Apple were heavily criticised for quietly sneaking in software which slowed down their older iPhone models, it definitely makes sense for companies to be honest with their customers. This is increasingly important to deliver against a growing ‘millennial’ mindset (across all age groups), one that demands authenticity and values trust. One of the difficulties that Irn Bru will face, is maintaining the emotional equities associated with the brand and the role the product itself plays in reinforcing their positioning through an aligned consumer experience. Their branding has always been ‘in your face’ with the bright orange packaging, their ‘made from girders’ advertising, and even in their recent product development with a fiery version of the drink.

As a brand, strength and resilience is at the heart of everything we do

Head of Marketing, Irn Bru

The reduction of sugar in their flagship product will therefore be a difficult one to spin. How will they do that whilst also maintaining their innovative, cheeky, confident equities?

Our Insight Director, Andy Wardlaw, wrote an interesting piece a while back, noting how KitKat had cleverly avoided consumer backlash when changing their recipe by not promoting the reduction in sugar, but instead the increased cocoa and milk content. The difficulty for the soft drink category, and for products like Lucozade and Irn Bru, is that they’re replacing the sugar with ‘undesirable’ sweeteners – as fair or unfair as that might be - we all remember the Pepsi aspartame debacle. The key is for brands to approach reformulation and accompanying research in an holistic way, considering overall product renovation (rather than focusing on reformulation of one element), working closely with consumers to fully understand the impact of changes and how to best position them to avoid alienation or temptation to switch brands.

As a number cruncher who likes to remain unbiased, I feel I’ll need to do an unofficial blind taste test at some point of the old and new product to see if I still like it. I’m just delighted that they haven’t changed their Snowman advert.

Gareth Pritchard is Associate Director of Statistics & Analytics at MMR

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