How Irn-Bru got woke and (almost) went broke

It embraced the sugar tax and changed its recipe. Now, after tumbling sales, it’s launched an even more sugary version.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics UK

It has been a tough year for AG Barr, the maker of Irn-Bru and Rubicon. Its share price has plunged 45 per cent since June, and it expects annual profits to be 20 per cent lower in 2019 than they were last year.

How different the mood at the company was 18 months ago when it boasted that it had ‘exceeded our original commitment on sugar reduction’ by spending £1.4million reformulating its products. Having once denounced the sugar tax as ‘a punitive and unnecessary distortion to competition in the UK market’, the company became the blue-eyed boy of the public-health lobby by taking more than half the sugar out of its flagship product Irn-Bru.

‘The vast majority of our drinkers want less sugar in their Irn-Bru’, a spokesman claimed, ‘so that’s what we’re now offering. We know that our loyal drinkers love Irn-Bru for its unique great taste and we’ve worked hard to deliver this.’ Alas, consumers did not agree and the company has been besieged by disgruntled punters complaining about what they see as an artificially sweetened forgery ever since. Frantic stockpiling and a hot summer papered over the cracks for long enough for Barr’s to issue an upbeat statement in March 2019, but the rot had already set in.

In July, still insisting that it ‘made the right decision to reduce the sugar in Irn-Bru and the vast majority of drinkers agree’, the company announced a profit warning. Its share price fell by 30 per cent in a day and has fallen further since.

How serendipitous, then, that Robin Barr – great-grandson of the eponymous AG – recently stumbled across a dusty book buried deep in the company’s archives which contains the original recipe written out in longhand. As luck would have it, the 1901 version of Irn-Bru contained even more sugar than the fabulously popular version that Barr took off the shelves last year.

Having made such a remarkable discovery, the company decided that it would be rude not to share this ‘authentic piece of Scottish history’ with the public. Irn-Bru 1901 will be available in the shops from 2 December, supposedly as a limited edition. Just in case you haven’t got the message, it will be explicitly marketed as ‘old and unimproved’.

Far be it from me to dismiss this as a shaggy-dog story from a company that is desperately trying to recover from a disastrous business decision. Only a cynic would use the phrase ‘reverse ferret’ or ‘get woke, go broke’. And let us not ask how Barr’s recent decision to launch Irn-Bru Energy, with 36 grams of sugar in every can, fits in with its ‘commitment on sugar reduction’.

Instead, just rejoice at this news and cross your fingers that somebody at Lucozade and Ribena will find a scroll in the attic.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also the co-host of Last Orders, spiked’s nanny-state podcast.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics UK


eli Bastenbury

24th October 2019 at 10:38 am

‘The vast majority of our drinkers want less sugar in their Irn-Bru’, a spokesman claimed, ‘so that’s what we’re now offering.’ Then they should drink something else. They should ask nanny to get them a poorer tasting beverage.

Hector Drummond

24th October 2019 at 10:32 am

Fingers crossed then that Lucozade will miraculously discover the original high-sugar recipe for Lucozade.

jessica christon

24th October 2019 at 11:47 am

Yes please, and put it back in the glass bottle with the orange cellophane wrapper!

Stephen J

24th October 2019 at 8:13 am

I have a friend who is around 60, and as fit and strong as an ox. He can plumb, wire, dig, build and plaster, he is a computer programmer experienced with the lowest level languages e.g. Assembler, he teaches skiing and snowboarding.

The downside in the normality stakes is that he is autistic. A feature of such people is a peculiar self image and strange attitudes to food and general nutrition. In short he is the sort of person that teenagers laugh and point at in the street. He has never made much of a living, although he is doing well at currency speculation at the moment.

Another slightly unusual feature is a very unusual diet. He eats steak and mushrooms, and he drinks full on sugared still orange, until the recent changes by these idiotic manufacturers it was called “Capri Sun”, I tried it once, it is sickly beyond belief, I am not sure what the current substitute is, but it is guaranteed that it is very sweet and with real sugar.

Regardless of this, there is no sign of him slowing down, I saw him a couple of weeks back hanging from a ceiling joist with one arm whilst installing dome twin and earth with the other hand and his mouth.

But the know-alls that know everything know better than my old friend, and they take his stuff off of the supermarket shelves, he was even getting nervous about steak a little while back.

But then again he voted “leave” so he is thick, and he doesn’t have a PPE!

Andrew Leonard

24th October 2019 at 2:18 am

The linked BBC article states:

The Cumbernauld-based firm announced last year that it would cut Irn Bru’s sugar content from about 10g per 100ml to just below 5g.

I wonder what would occur if the sugar content reduction was phased in over a long period – say a decade – rather than by a single drastic cut?
What does AG Barr actually want – to be seen to be woke to the health impact of excessive sugar consumption, or to actually achieve reduced overall sugar consumption, with little or no fanfare?

If the former then the sugar cut and its promotion is just an advertising strategy. The later would be indicative of people who are so impatient in their desire to change the world, that they will never succeed.

Stephen J

24th October 2019 at 8:20 am

Actually the fattest and unhealthiest person that I know is pretty wealthy but spends quite a lot of his time driving. If I ever go for a pub lunch with him, I usually have to clear about six or more empty “zero” coke cans out of the floor well.

A fat woman that my wife knows has to drink several cans of diet coke when they share lunch.

Indeed it would seem to me that fat people police themselves and as they are still fat, perhaps that is what they want. Certainly my mate is very confident of his little fat bod, and why the hell not?

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