Losing the Lemons

Gareth I. Jones
7 min readApr 18, 2023

In a month where it feels like everyone has a cold, flu, Covid, or something worse, I want to tell a story about Lemsip and retaining your values.

Photo by Ernest Porzi on Unsplash

Recently, someone in the office — maybe jokingly — suggested that the default Lemsip flavour should be blackcurrant.

When LEM-SIP was first launched in 1969 it was marketed on the fact that it contained real lemon juice. Step away from the world of big pharma and you’ll hear many people who advocate keeping it simple and sticking to warm honey and lemon water with a couple of paracetamol to clear up a blocked nose.

Lemon juice in the product was the USP and the thing that connected it with the market.

Nowadays, Lemsip contains “lemon flavour” and lots of sweeteners, but the decongestant advertised is phenylephrine hydrochloride. Maybe I’m an outlier, but I have no memories of my Nana telling me I needed some phenylephrine hydrochloride when I was bunged up.

At some stage, Lemsip reached a state of market security where it didn’t need to include lemon juice and was able to ditch this expensive and complicated ingredient. It doesn’t take too many scans of Reddit to see how lemon isn’t too popular a flavour with everyone — but you wouldn’t expect the product to change names to Blackcurrant-Sip. Blackcurrant doesn’t have any of that reputation as a decongestant.

Onto a slightly different medicinal product, let’s talk about Jäger-bombs.

We had our Christmas party last week and had the traditional rounds of Jäger-bombs (it’s what Santa would have wanted us to do!)

Maybe it’s just me, but I find Jäger-bombs fascinating…

In theory, a Jäger-bomb is half a can of Red Bull and a single shot of Jägermeister, the shot glass then dropped into the glass of energy drink. Nice and simple.

In reality, what you get when you order a Jäger-bomb is total potluck. It might be a splash of any energy drink, it might be all in one glass, it might be a new specially made drinkware category which nobody knew the world needed a decade or so ago.

Lots of bad memories

Some of this is dictated by the bar wanting to keep costs lower — if you can share a single can of Red Bull between four servings rather than two then there are clear savings. Using cheaper energy drinks to Red Bull — a premium brand — has other obvious savings, and then there are time savings by just pouring everything in one mix which can increase productivity on a busy night.

The distinction here is that neither Jägermeister or Red Bull have control over what is served as a Jäger-bomb. In truth they probably don’t want to have much ownership given the association with binge-drinking. So therefore bars can do what they want, and pass off whatever can closely get away with the name.

So what can we learn from Lemsip and Jäger-bombs? Well, we can ask ourselves: what are the things you can chip away at before your product or service is unrecognisable?

When is what you do still what you do? And what values do you need to retain to keep what you do uniquely yours?

Does it matter if Lemsip is lemon flavour as long as it makes you feel better? Does it matter whether Jäger-bombs have Red Bull in them, or if they’re served in the right glasses so long as everyone has a good time?

If you take out the ritualistic bits, or the fluff, or the trade descriptions compliance, then the final product might be different.

And in your business it will most certainly change and evolve over the course of a year, decade, or lifetime.

It’s what I always refer to as the “bus hitting the board” scenario.

Bus Hits Board

If all of our senior team got hit by a bus, and a new leadership team came into the company and took it forward, what is it they would assume is the most important and crucial thing we do?

With Irn-Bru and Coca-Cola it’s the old legend of the recipe being kept in a safe where only a handful of people have access to it. But if you’re reading this then you likely don’t have such a simple and easy-to-communicate secret sauce or recipe for what you do.

Most social business models don’t break down into a snappy elevator pitch or recipe card: there’s more to them than that. You can’t remove the vanilla to save money but lose half of your market at the same time.

If you look at what makes you the most money, then it is highly likely that will be the focus of everything you do. It’s very easy to be driven by this, and a lot of very successful and wise (far wiser than me) people will tell you this is the whole point of your business.

Social entrepreneurs tend to have that unnecessary obstacle in the mix though, which might not be so obvious to an external person coming in, or a new leadership team.

If someone comes in, and finds that you spend all this money on importing vanilla from a fair-trade grower in Madagascar but that they can get it for half the price from Uganda, then it doesn’t make sense to keep paying double — does it?

They might look at your Jäger-bomb and ask whether it has to be Red Bull, which is more expensive, or if it has to be in two glasses, which wastes time, adds cost and washing up.

I remember the time my partner went to Finland to learn about the style of teaching in order to learn lessons for pupils back home.

Finnish Teaching

The style of teaching is so fundamentally different to the British style that it can’t be summed up in a couple of days of visiting. There are cultural differences, mindset differences, and completely different structures that enable the process.

The teachers themselves need to have at least five to seven years of training, the kids are playing out in icy playgrounds, and they let the babies sleep outside covered with only a reindeer pelt.

Every lesson is only 45 minutes and has at least a 15-minute break afterwards to enable kids to refocus.

But by the end of the trip one of the senior delegates from the UK was trying to advise the Finnish counterparts — at that point part of the most successful education system in the world — how they ought to do it.

When things are so radically different, systemically, culturally, and experientially, it is near impossible to come back from a couple of days and fully appreciate what makes it all work. Nevermind, seemingly, being humble enough to appreciate that others might be smarter and more advanced than you.

I’ve always felt a bit like this when I hear about policy advisers who go to big conferences and completely miss the point.

Vegan Baking

The best example I can give for this is someone going to a training workshop on baking a vegan cake, completely getting the bigger picture ideas, buying into the whole concept and then, when getting back home with the intention to implement the learning, starting off by cracking an egg.

There are often fundamental things that we struggle to reprogram in our minds. You can’t bake a cake without cracking an egg. You can’t just stop doing what you’ve thought for years or decades is what you’re really great at — or what is your superpower — when you realise all of a sudden that it isn’t so super or great.

We’ve had the same experience when it comes to having impact reports written as a result of government funded programmes.

They can often completely miss the point through a lack of curiosity. We can only plug new knowledge onto our already established mental models. It’s hard to try to connect new concepts to they old way of measuring success and how things are done. We had one which was so obsessed with the established KPIs that they completely missed the point, they wanted to see cakes but they didn’t want to cure hunger.

No Sacred Cows

You might make your job harder, or your service more valuable by having convoluted processes and procedures.

We have a philosophy at TownSq that there are no sacred cows. The idea here being that we need to be willing to let go of the past and what was previously our most important thing if we want to grow and progress.

This can be hard for some people. People like consistency, and knowing where everything is, these constantly shifting sands might be uncomfortable.

What’s your lemon? Do people need your product to contain lemons to still be popular? Or have you moved on but you can’t quite bring yourself to drop what you thought was the most important part of what you did?

How often do you ask your customers and users — or better yet conduct tests and experiments — to see if they would mind more or less vanilla?

And my final piece of advice is to nip any Jäger-bomb traditions in the bud.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.