Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Robin Barr stands down as chairman of Irn Bru . . . and takes the secret recipe with him

Coca-Cola, it is said, once sent out an edict to its senior sales team to find out why Scotland was the only country in Europe in which it was not king of the fizzy drinks. The bemused executives did not have to look far: the answer lay in a peculiar, orange- coloured beverage to which the Scots were addicted.

Not whisky, no, but Scotland's other national drink, as Irn Bru was known for years. AG Barr, makers of the exceedingly sweet pop - vile tasting to those not weaned on it, but beloved by those who were - announced profits up nearly 10 per cent to £23.4million last January, on a turn-over of £169.7million.

Robin Barr, one of only two people who know the secret recipe for Irn Bru, stepped down yesterday after 31 years as chairman. Mr Barr, 71, whose great-grandfather concocted the drink 108 years ago, is passing the job to someone outside the family, a first for the company.

The secret recipe - which some suspect is sugar, sugar and more sugar - will remain in the family, with Mr Barr passing the formula to his daughter Julie, the company secretary.

Mr Barr, who will continue as a non-executive director, said yesterday that his company had managed to withstand the attack from Coca-Cola “thus far ... and there is no reason to suppose we can't continue. The secret of selling a brand or maintaining a brand is of course consistency. You can't do it by spending a lot of money this year and having a holiday next year: it's got to be a continuous long-term process and to a degree that's what makes it easier if it's a family business.”

Known simply as “ginger” in the West of Scotland, Irn Bru has many things going for it, not least that it is famed as a hangover cure in a nation with an alcohol problem. It also appeals to the legendary Scottish sweet tooth, although Barr does not like to be reminded of its responsibilities to country's abysmal dental health or obesity statistics.

Fundamental to Irn Bru's success has been its adverts, which chime with Scotland's dark sense of humour, from the slogan “Made in Scotland, from girders” to the posters of a toothless old lady saying: “Give us your Irn Bru or I'll snog you.”

There has been controversy about their lack of taste. Three years ago, Strathclyde Police complained about one advert, which they felt glamorised violence, but the accusation was dismissed by the Advertising Standards Authority. The most recent campaign is a spoof of High School Musical, set at the fictional Auchendookit Senior High.

Ed Brooke, from the Leith Agency, which runs the campaign, told The Times: “I think Irn Bru ads have been famously down to earth and a little bit cheeky. They refuse to take them- selves too seriously and I think it's this mixture of honest irreverence that sets them apart from other ads.

“Sometimes the creation of these ads takes a degree of bravery and conviction from those involved in the process and Barr's have always been exceptional judges and supporters of a good idea even if the [ads] are sometimes a little risque.Irn Bru is a fabric brand in Scotland - drunk by a wide range of Scots so we have to be mindful that anything we produce has pretty broad appeal.”

During his years in charge Mr Barr diversified the interests of the company, most recently adding the fruit juice range Rubicon to its portfolio. His successor is Ronnie Hanna, 66, a chartered accountant who has served on the company's board for five years.

The Cumberbauld-based business is praised by City analysts for its steady performance. Nicola Mallard, from Investec, said: “AG Barr has proved to be a consistent deliverer, outperforming the soft drink category even in a tough climate."

Always fizzing with ideas

— AG Barr was formed in 1875 when Robert Barr embarked on a new direction for the family cork-cutting business with the sale of aerated waters and in 1901, the company began making “Iron Brew”. Within a generation the Barr family had another factory in the East End of Glasgow and were competing with hundreds of soft drinks factories.

— During the early 20th century, a time of poor sanitation, drinking water and diet, many people living in industrial cities regarded soft drinks as good for them - a guaranteed way to give them a dose of energy through the sugar content.

— AG Barr was always innovative in its marketing. In the Thirties it dreamt up the cartoon strip Adventures of Ba-Bru and Sandy, which was inspired by Rudyard Kipling's book Sabu the Elephant Boy. The strip, which appeared in Scottish newspapers, introduced generations of Scots to Iron Brew and became the longest running advertising cartoon in history, lasting until the early Seventies.

— The company also engaged many sporting heroes of the day to endorse the brand, including Benny Lynch, the world flyweight Champion in 1935.

— In 1947 the drink was renamed Irn Bru after concerns over new food labelling regulations - it did contain iron but its was not brewed.

— Under Robin Barr, the great-grandson of the company's founder, AG Barr diversified. In addition to Irn Bru it produces Tizer, Strathmore and Orangina and most recently the fruit juice range Rubicon. Last January AG Barr announced that its profits were up by nearly 10 per cent to £23.4million on a turnover of £169.7million.

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