A storm in a syrup tin

The image of the dead lion with bees swarming from its stomach is to be dropped from some of Lyle's Golden Syrup packaging. This has created quite a fuss – being discussed widely in the media including on the BBC and GB News. The reactions in the Christian community – reflecting once again the culture's way of reacting - is to push to two extremes.

At the one end are those who seem to see it as a sign of the end times, yet another indicator that Britain's businesses are opposing Christianity in everything they do. On the other side are those who think it is not only completely irrelevant but that anyone who brings up the issue is really culturally irrelevant and fighting the wrong battles. It's always amusing when someone says that 'life is too short to write about this kind of stuff' - in their latest piece writing about this kind of stuff!

In a world which includes major wars in Gaza and Ukraine, unrest in Congo and Myanmar, and mobs threatening the UK Parliament, my sympathy is instinctively with those who think the whole issue is overblown and ridiculous. This seems such a trivial matter. And yet, perhaps it is indicative of something more?

The lion with the bees comes from the Old Testament story of Samson killing a lion and noticing that a swarm of bees has produced a comb of honey in the carcass. He later uses the phrase in a riddle "out of the strong comes forth sweetness" (Judges 14:14). Both the text and the image have been used on Lyon's Golden Syrup since 1888, making it the oldest branded image in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records.

Why was this used? Because the founder of Lyle's (later Tate & Lyle Sugars) was a Scottish businessman called Abram Lyle, who was also a Presbyterian elder – and who took his faith really seriously. Doubtless there were many in Victorian times who would have known and appreciated the biblical reference. I suspect that is not true today, but would that be reason enough to drop it? Let's consider why it has been done and how it shows changes within British society.

According to the company's brand director James Whiteley, the changes are being made because the company needs to show its customers it is moving with the times and meeting their current needs: "Our fresh, contemporary design brings Lyle's into the modern day, appealing to the everyday British household while still feeling nostalgic and authentically Lyle's."

It really is part of modern life that companies think that rebranding actually means something. Will any British household be encouraged to buy more syrup by the change in design? It's what's in the tin that really matters. Only someone who has to justify a degree in marketing from the London Business School would think otherwise. But Branded Britain is going strong.

Although some would argue it is a perfectly logical marketing decision, in marketing terms it doesn't make a great deal of difference and indeed may even be negative, because loyal customers don't like change to the things they enjoy. Replacing the 'real' lion with a cute cuddly lion's head may sound great to a marketing generation reared on Disney, but it's so boring. I note in passing that when real Christianity thrives, so does real creativity. But Bland Britain is also going strong too. We can't have any real diversity here. Everything must fit into the design mantras the marketing people tell us work – all within the bounds of the current ideology.

Because of the fuss Gerald Mason, Senior Vice President of Tate & Lyle Sugars, apologised for the upset caused. "We are very proud of the history and biblical link to our Lyle's tin, and have absolutely no intention to change it in any way," he said.

This seemed somewhat contradictory given that they had just announced that they do intend to change it for most of their syrup packaging, although apparently not the tin – which again begs the question: why have two different brands for the same product?

He also suggested that, "Religion played absolutely no part in our decision to try something different on our syrup bottles". But Helen Edwards, the adjunct associate professor of marketing at London Business School, doesn't seem to agree. She explained why the rebranding needs to be done. As she told the BBC, "The story of it coming from religious belief could put the brand in an exclusionary space, especially if it was to go viral on X or TikTok." You have to stop and read that again and then think about what it means. Apparently modern corporate Britain and its marketing gurus think that anything coming from religious belief might be seen as 'exclusionary' especially if someone ran a campaign on social media!

I suspect that there are caveats to this advice. For example, if something was Islamic or Buddhist that would no doubt be seen as 'inclusionary', but if it were Christian or Jewish that would be 'exclusionary'. So in that wonderful postmodern illogicality we have to exclusive in order to be inclusive. Suddenly the story doesn't appear so trivial after all.

Of course it is a storm in a syrup cup. And of course Christians should not be 'fighting battles' to change branding. But we should pause and ask how we have gone from a culture where a biblical verse and story on a product was normal, to one where no such thing would be even considered feasible. It seems the only biblical symbol permitted in modern Britain is the culturally misappropriated rainbow!

It is easy to mock and point out that no one came to faith because of seeing an obscure Bible verse on a syrup tin, but that misses the point. This story is just one piece in a thousand-piece jigsaw which illustrates how branded, bland and unbiblical Britain is becoming. Revive us Lord ... and restore to us the years the locusts have eaten" (Joel 2:25).

David Robertson is the minister of Scots Kirk Presbyterian Church in Newcastle, New South Wales. He blogs at The Wee Flea.