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Irn Bru girds its loins for Coca-Culloden

IRN BRU, the fizzy drink, "made in Scotland from girders", is heading for battle with Coca Cola. The American multinational confirmed this week it is determined to crack Scotland which, alone among the world's nations, has failed to make Coke its favourite drink.

A special Coca-Cola sales team has been recruited to dislodge Irn Bru from the number one spot. "The new team," said a Coca-Cola spokesman, "is already up and running."

The plan is to expand production at the company's only plant in East Kilbride. One tactic will be Coca-Cola's policy of "glocalisation", tailoring promotions to local markets. As sponsors of Euro 96 and the World Cup Finals, Coca Cola ran competitions in the Scottish media offering the prize of tickets for Scottish matches.

Coca-Cola, cagey this week for fear of upsetting potential buyers, is confident that its new marketing stormtroopers will make an impact in Scotland.And there is much to fight for. Scotland has the highest per capita spending in Britain on soft drinks. It is said that, in parts of Glasgow, some households drink nothing else; no tea, coffee or water, just large bottles of Irn Bru.

Irn Bru, though dwarfed by Coca-Cola, is a highly profitable business and ready for a fight. Last year its owner, Lanarkshire-based AG Barr, had a turnover of pounds 107m and opening up operations in Russia, sold a million bottles in its first year.

The recipe, like that for Coca-Cola, is a secret and only two men are thought to know how to mix the 32 ingredients. One of them is Robin Barr, the chairman of AG Barr, and the other is his cousin Michael Barr. The drink's taste is hard to define, although aficionados liken it to liquefied Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

The battle to shake up the sweet drinks market could be bitter for Coca- Cola, according to Pat Kane, the Scottish journalist and singer with the band Hue and Cry.

He highlighted the country's attachment to the traditional Sunday morning breakfast of four Paracetamol and a bottle of Irn Bru. "It's a great hangover cure," he said. "We love to stodge ourselves up with lots of junk and the sugary stuff sticks to the ribs the best."

A long-standing grudge persists between Coca-Cola and Irn Bru, which MacDonald's preferred to offer in its Scottish outlets until Coca-Cola objected. Irn Bru advertising has made fun of its rival's relative unpopularity. In oneadvertisement, featuring a cow, the slogan reads: "When I become a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn Bru."

To beat off the competitionAG Barr has in recent years given the product an image makeover. It was originally developed as a non-alcoholic beverage for "puddles" who stirred vats of molten iron and were prone to nasty, alcohol-related accidents. For years Irn Bru maintained that manufacturing image, then the Leith Agency in Edinburgh took over the drink's advertising in the Nineties.

Gerry Farrell, creative director explained: "The old "made from girders" image means nothing to a London kid who is into Hip Hop and wears Tommy Hilfiger clothes. We had to provide a crash course in Irn Bru. We think we can reach out to these people better than Coca Cola can. We cannot outspend them so we have to out-think them."

The result of all this, said Pat Kane, is that Irn Bru has been "descotified". "The danger is that Coca-Cola, by using its policy of localisation, will make its drink look Scottish."

Irn Bru, despite the bravado of its advertising agency, is a little shaken. "This story emanated from Coca-Cola and Barr Soft Drinks have no further comment to make," said its spokeswoman. The drink, however, retains a crucial advantage, said Pat Kane. "Coca-Cola could never be advertised as a hangover cure."