In an article today, it was announced that the chairman of Irn Bru, Robin Barr, will be stepping down after 48 years at the helm. And, why should this story be so interesting? Well, 3 things come to mind….

1. Great brand story
First of all is the great brand story that I learnt upon reading the article. Not being a consumer of fizzy drinks, I’m a bit behind on these things. So to keep you updated on what I have learnt:

“Mr Barr is one of only two people in the world who knows the secret recipe for the best-selling Irn Bru drink and the two never travel on the same plane.

Once a month the essences for the drink are personally mixed by Robin Barr in a sealed room at the company’s headquarters in Cumbernauld.

The 32 different ingredients are combined in a huge vat, which mixes 8,000 litres at a time.

The recipe was discovered by Robin Barr’s great grandfather in 1901 and has not changed in 108 years.

Only one other unnamed person shares the secret but the formula has been written down and is stored in a bank vault somewhere in Scotland.”

Wow! What heritage! The idea that someone is preparing the mixture personally for a fizzy drink really sounds quite heart-warming. And not only that, but it’s the grandson of the inventor of the recipe. In my head, these sugary drinks are all prepared in huge vats and mixed by a computer, watched over by a food chemist. But to have the chairman personally stirring up the essences sounds lovely! I’m sure he uses a very large wooden spoon. The drink almost sounds like it’s home made.

You couldn’t buy this sort of branding. It’s priceless. A cynic somewhere might be wondering if it’s all true, but we’ll ignore them for now.

And this sort of takes me onto my next point.

2. Bang on brand message
For branding to succeed, the brand message has to be applied consistently across all touch points. And, this is what these guys have clearly been doing. So, at this juncture I would like to applaud their PR team. The article above mentions all the key points of the brand story as shared on the brand website. There is only one discrepancy. Can you spot it? (answer at the end):

“How would you describe the essence of a flavour that only two people in the world know? One that is such a closely guarded secret that it is held under lock and key in a vault in Switzerland? A taste so precious, so unique that it is our chairman Robin Barr, and he alone, who blends the unique combination of 32 flavours that can be savoured in every sip? There is only one word to describe it.


And if you didn’t get that right you’ve clearly been drinking something else. So go and de-tox your mouth with a can of IRN-BRU immediately.”

When using PR as part of your brand building strategy, the trick is to ensure that the brand message is understood clearly by the media and repeated word for word. Of course, in the real world, this can be tricky. Journalists and editors like to trim down press releases, or they may pick a more newsworthy angle that in not entirely appropriate for the brand. And, as a brand, you only find out once you get to read the finished piece.

But here, the PR team have clearly done a good job. They probably have great relationships with the media they’re dealing with and have no doubt furnished them with incredulous amounts of Irn Bru.

My final point doesn’t quite link on so smoothly I’m afraid. But it is an important one.

3.  The secret recipe
How many brands have secret recipes? I bet if you talked to any big food brand, they would tell you that their recipe is secret. And yet, what steps are being taken to protect these recipes? If these recipes were compromised what would the impact on the brand be?

Imagine this. You’re a big international food brand. Your sales are doing so well that you’re over capacity in your manufacturing plants. The majority of your new sales are coming from the Middle East, but you don’t have a factory there. But you get approached by an Indian manufacturer who says that they have spare capacity and would love to make your product for you. Great! They’re going to need the recipe. Hmmm. Stop!

At this point, the brand owner needs to stop and ask questions. Lot of questions.

  • How will they protect the recipe?
  • Can they demonstrate that they’re protecting it, really?
  • Who’s going to have access to the recipe?
  • Can they be trusted?
  • Who’s job is it to ask the questions? Do they know what questions to ask?

But let us for a moment imagine what could happen…

  • Recipe is not stored safely and is compromised. The product is made using a different recipe and the resulting product lets the brand down. FAIL!
  • The recipe is leaked. Competitors get their hands on it and offer the same product at a discount. FAIL!

Ouch! Either way, the result will cost, if not in sales then in brand reputation or brand value.

Managing and protecting a brand is so much bigger than the marketing department. It should permeate the whole business from finance and HR to legal and operations. Potential brand damage can come from any quarter so everyone needs to be clear as to what their part is in protecting the brand and its value to the business.

Fortunately at Irn Bru, they understand that one. They even have a decoy – we don’t really know whether the original formula is stored in Scotland or Switzerland.