Its ubiquitous nature means that it's available everywhere from supermarkets to McDonald's, and its sweet, sugary taste has made it a popular non-alcoholic mixer in restaurants, bars and clubs. If you're curious about the ingredients, however, you've more chance of discovering what a Scotsman wears under his kilt than getting a glance at the Barr family recipe. The only thing that's certain is that the formula has changed little over the better part of a century.
In recent times, AG Barr has attempted to enhance brand equity by establishing a unique identity for Irn-Bru, and in the late 1980s, it embarked on an advertising campaign that has subsequently been compared to that of Benneton in terms of notoriety. The early adverts were a direct assault on Pepsi and Coke, openly challenging the American companies' clean-cut image of philanthropic family life by poking fun at their core values and questioning their morals. The later adverts, though, moved away from such direct confrontation and, instead, concentrated on developing Irn-Bru's rebellious nature, focusing more on the concept of brand association than that of brand awareness. Perhaps one of the more talked about billboard ads of this particular genre featured a country laird, suited and booted in full tweed regalia while surrounded by his hunting dogs. The strapline? "I love Irn-Bru - and so do my bitches!"
Although controversial, the unorthodox and unconventional nature of these adverts have undoubtedly had the desired effect and AG Barr has succeeded in associating a culture of mischievous rascality to the Irn-Bru name. The end result is an in-your-face attitude and the drink is a definite Scottish institution, sporting its own tartan and now almost as much revered as the legendary Loch Ness Monster. (An insight into Barr's marketing technique can be found at the official Irn-Bru wind-up website, www.irn-bru.co.uk.)
In attempting to increase the exposure of Irn-Bru overseas, AG Barr has gleefully exported cases of the product to locations such as Hong Kong and Australia, while also challenging both Coke and Pepsi for a share of the soft drinks markets in Canada and Spain. (Sales in the latter country being undoubtedly boosted by the hoards of thirsty Scots who flock to the Balearics during the summer months of June, July and August.) And as if that wasn't cheeky enough, Barr's next step was the ambitious opening of a bottling franchise in Russia - a market where Coke was starting to struggle.
Despite the frustrations endured by Atlanta's Big Red however, the results for AG Barr were favorable and now Irn-Bru is Moscow's third most popular soft drink, helped no doubt by the locals' belief that the taste of the product compares with the famous Russian beverage, Boratino. Keen to play down the similarities, though, a spokesman for AG Barr said that "AG Barr does not believe that the brand's success is due to any similarity with Boratino. The success is due to Irn-Bru's unique flavour profile, excellent advertising and strong distribution." And when asked about the possibility of further expansion that may replicate the Russian success, the spokesman predictably added, "Barr is always looking for suitable franchise partners in overseas markets."
In spite of its recent track record of success, the AG Barr management team are staying tight-lipped about their plans for globalization, and the canny Scots are cautious when discussing their plans for the future. When commenting recently in The Scotsman about trials of Irn-Bru in New York, Barr's Managing Director, Hugh McPherson, said, "these tests of Irn-Bru in a Coca-Cola dominated market were reasonably successful, but they were only trials on a very small scale. We don't plan to sell the drink in the US for a while yet."
While plans for the USA may still be on the back-burner, McPherson is a little more open in terms of his plans for invading England and when asked about increasing revenues next year he said, "We should see a further rise in pre-tax profits in the first half of 2001, as a result of promotional campaigns we plan to run south of the border. Irn-Bru has a large following in Scotland and we just need to try to boost sales in England."
Indeed, the very thought of truckloads of kilted and Claymore-waving AG Barr employees all clambering over Hadrian's Wall to preach the gospel of Irn-Bru to the unsuspecting English is quite an enduring image and perhaps one not without its fair share of merit. But while annoying the local neighbors is one thing, what do Coke and Pepsi make of the bothersome little kid with the bright orange hair and freckles who continues to poke and prod at them without any sense of fear or retribution?
Douglas Daft, the CEO at Coca-Cola, was quoted in the Financial Times in October 2000 as seeing the likes of Irn-Bru as nothing more than a local competitor in the non-alcoholic beverage market. He continued to say that he perceived the huge growth in the consumption of bottled water as a more realistic strategic threat to his business.
Fair comment. However Irn-Bru has gained considerable momentum in a very short period of time, and in addition to its increased popularity through conventional mediums, it now also enjoys cult status on the Internet, where it has a number of unofficial sites that have dedicated themselves to brand evangelism.
Not surprisingly, such overwhelming customer support has not gone unnoticed by AG Barr who is now repositioning itself to take advantage of its premium brand and have committed to a more focused approach on the marketing of Irn-Bru over the next financial year. To this end, Hugh McPherson is forecasting incremental increases in sales of the product in the first half of 2001, over and above the 6% lift that AG Barr has enjoyed during the past 12 months. And to support its marketing strategy, AG Barr has already planned and prepared a TV advertising campaign, which if the company runs true to form, should provide plenty of scope for debate.
Longer term though, it's what will happen overseas that counts and while AG Barr may always enjoy a strong position across the UK, can it ever hope to challenge Coke and Pepsi on a global scale? When we put the question to AG Barr, we got the following uncharacteristically demure response: "Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are excellent companies both in the UK and overseas. We do not see ourselves as a threat to such large companies."