Under the Influence

How this brand has outsold Coke in Scotland for over a century

Sometimes, small brands manage to outsmart their giant counterparts. And this tiny soda brand has done it for over a century. Goliath, meet David.
Cola drink Irn-Bru is described by many as "Scotland's other national drink." (Peter Mills/CBC)

Coca Cola outsells virtually every other soft drink in every country around the world.

Except Scotland.

Back in 1901, a soft drink was created to quench the thirst of Glasgow steelworkers. Because sanitation was poor at that time, this drink was considered a healthy way to boost energy in industrial areas. This drink was like a tonic, with lots of sugar and caffeine.

It was called Iron Brew.

Then in 1947, the name was changed. That year, the Scottish government insisted that all brand names had to be "literally true."

You might be thinking the name had to change because it didn't contain any iron. Actually, it did contain some iron - it just wasn't brewed.

So the name was phonetically changed to Irn-Bru.

Coca Cola is the top-selling soda almost everywhere else in the world. (CBC)

Not only did the new name conform to the new law, it also gave the soft drink a legally protected brand identity.

Irn-Bru has a distinctive orange and blue packaging and the logo features an image of a strongman. The liquid itself is bright orange. The brand even has its own tartan.

In the 1970s, Irn-Bru adopted the slogan "Made from Scottish girders" - meaning steel beams - a tongue-in-cheek reference to its rusty colour - and its steelworker heritage.

It became so beloved it's called "Scotland's other national drink" - after whisky. Twenty cans of Irn-Bru are sold in bonnie Scotland every second.

Some say it's hard to describe the flavour of Irn-Bru. It's orange but doesn't taste orangey. Some say it tastes a bit like bubble gum whereas most say it's more like a fizzy cream soda.

It is said the secret formula is known only to three people at the company and they are not allowed to travel together on planes.

20 cans of Irn-Bru are sold every second. (CBC)

A big part of Irn-Bru's popularity in Scotland is due to its cheeky and sometimes controversial advertising. One billboard showed a cow with the headline: "When I'm a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn-Bru."

That one got over 700 complaints.

Scotland's love of Irn-Bru didn't stop Donald Trump from creating a bit of outrage there recently. He owns a luxury golf course in Turnberry, Scotland and it banned the sale of Irn-Bru on its premises.

The stated reason: The bright orange liquid stains the resort's expensive carpets. Probable reason: To serve American Coca Cola.

When that ban was announced, one Twitter user said: "The President of the United States has just declared war on Scotland."

Others said "If Trump is so afraid of the colour orange, how does he explain his fake tan?"

And on it went.

But through it all, Irn-Bru still outsells the mighty Coca Cola to this day and has dominated the Scottish soft drink market for over a century.

For more stories about Small Brands That Outsell The Big Boys, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)