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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

The lion lives! On vintage brands, statues and syrup

It was announced this week that Tate and Lyle are changing the branding of their golden syrup on much of their packaging. The story was deemed newsworthy because the product holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s oldest unchanging brand packaging. It has remained the same since 1888 and is basically the same as the original design when the product was launched over 150 years ago.

The company is retaining the old design on its classic tins of golden syrup but a radically new design has been unveiled for its plastic bottles. Glancing casually at the old logo (which accompanies this post), it may seem innocent enough, but, every so often, someone exclaims on social media that they have just realised the lion is not sleeping peacefully (presumably after gorging itself on sweet syrup) but very much dead and surrounded by insects. Not the most appetising of images when one is baking or drizzling sweetness on pancakes.

Was the rebrand because of fears that users might lose their appetite when they realised they were staring at a decomposing specimen of an endangered species? Or did Tate and Lyle think it might encourage people to associate excess use of the product with premature death (spoiler: too much sugar is bad for you)? Perhaps. The new logo, whilst retaining the gold and green colours and including a lion, is much friendlier looking. The lion is very much alive and sports what looks like a smile and a groovy hairstyle complete with a single bee so stylised I thought at first it was a flower. Much cuddlier and cuter. As brand director for Tate and Lyle, James Whiteley, is reported to have said, “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”.[i]

Adjunct professor of marketing, Helen Edwards, is not so sure. She suggests the change may have been motivated by a desire to be non-exclusionary. She told BBC reporters, "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”.[ii] The ‘religious belief’ behind the brand is the strong Christian faith of Scottish entrepreneur Abram Lyle, whose company combined with that of Henry Tate (of Tate gallery fame) in 1921.

Lyle chose the image and accompanying logo from a story in the life of biblical Judge Samson. He found honeycomb in the carcass of a lion he had killed a few days earlier. When his parents asked where he got the honey, presumably to avoid telling them he had eaten something defiled by contact with a dead body, he replied with a riddle that: “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”. The second part of this riddle, in King James English, is part of the original Lyle logo.

What are Christians to make of this story? I was amused by the Telegraph’s headline that reads, ‘Lyle’s Golden Syrup attacked by Christians over logo change’.[iii] It conjured mental images of a very sticky brawl and I wondered who would win in the melee! I do not quite share the apparent outrage of the folk the story refers to. Nor am I sure that Prof Edwards is correct about the company’s motivation. After all, they have retained the old image on the tins. But I do see this story as an indicator of a trend in Western culture. Our approach to history tends to take two forms.

One approach is revisionism. Those once regarded as heroes are now treated with suspicion or even reassessed as ‘bad guys’. The removal of statues of southern African’s Cecil Rhodes and Bristol’s Edward Colston are prominent examples. As is the question I heard this week on a Radio 4 trailer about Winston Churchill’s part in the causation of a famine in Bengal during World War 2.

Personally, I think it is good to reassess history. I live in a part of the world where people have their preferred ways of telling history. In these mythic versions, there are heroes and villains. The reality is seldom so clear-cut. I am not a fan of statues of anyone, either. As a Christian, I have one hero, the only person who was without blemish. That is the Lord Jesus himself, of course. I struggle to understand why any flawed human being should be put on a pedestal, either literally in stone or bronze or metaphorically in person or legacy. Sadly, I still see a great deal of that in Christian circles, like the description from a Christian publisher I read this week that referred to people quoted in a book as ‘heroes of the faith’. Or like almost every speaker bio I have ever read.

But I am concerned that some of the revisions of history are no less nuanced or fair than the versions they seek to revise. We need to do better at processing the complexities of people, living and historical. We also need to learn how to evaluate our prejudices and assumptions that might colour how we see them. I do not claim to have mastered that myself, but I am trying to learn.

The other way we increasingly handle history is worse than revisionism. It is to simply ignore it. This ahistorical turn is related to the former. Critical theory has become so prevalent in our culture that we tend to look at anyone who held power of any kind as inevitably corrupt. History is a story of oppression. And foremost among the oppressors was the Christian edifice in culture, in the Church and in individuals like Abram Lyle. Escaping from Christian oppression means erasing the legacy of Christian ideas.

Seen through this critical lens, we conclude that history has nothing to teach us. We are the enlightened ones, ones who have woken up and smelt the coffee. The danger of missing our blind spots amidst our arrogance is immense.

This ahistoric approach is also evident among Christians. We are willing to depart from the historic understanding of the Church on significant issues because we think our experience shows us greater truth. We reinterpret Scripture to support our conclusion, reaching understandings that no previous generation did and that could hardly have been what the original readers would have understood. In our churches we too readily become pragmatic or eclectic, experimenting with whatever catches our fancy without thinking theologically about what honours God and is most faithful to Scripture.

I think all this lies behind the rebrand of golden syrup. I should be clear, though, that I am not attacking Tate and Lyle (I fear getting into a sticky mess!) Nor am I defending Abram Lyle. I do not know enough about him to do that. I do admire the fact that he was so immersed in Scripture that he chose a relatively obscure story and verse for his tins, just because his product was sweet like the honey Samson enjoyed. I suppose that might have been a clever marketing ploy in Victorian Britain, whose population was so versed in Scripture that the image would have made a subliminal link between Lyle’s refined product and the natural goodness of honey. But I prefer to think it was just instinctive for him to reach for a biblical image because Scripture shaped his whole imagination.

From our modern vantage point, we might be tempted to criticise Lyle for peddling refined sugar. But he could hardly know how harmful excessive refined carbohydrates would prove to our dental and physical health, so we can hardly blame him. We could legitimately question whether his profits from sugar were righteously gained, given the industry’s historic connections with slavery. Lyle never owned slaves, and most of his sugar came from the British Caribbean, where slavery had been abolished well before he started out in business. But his company would not have been profitable if the industry had not been built on slave labour, and it is possible that some of his sugar could have come from slave plantations in South America.[iv]

I am not writing to attack or to defend. I simply want to observe the tension in the West today around our Christian legacy. This story exemplifies the slow death of Christian influence in our society. Gradually, the visible trappings of our (very imperfectly) Christianised past are being removed. But that does not mean our Christian legacy is gone. The skylines of our cities and countryside are still littered with spires pointing to heaven, even if the sound of worship is seldom heard beneath many of them.

In our values, too, there are ‘spires’ pointing to something transcendent. Ideas that originated from Christianity, and which arguably only make sense within a Christian worldview, remain prominent. Ideas like the dignity of each individual, the possibility of progress, human rights and individual autonomy. These are the long legacy of Christianity. I cannot say if the time will come when they go the way of Lyle’s lion, but I am convinced that we will be the poorer if they do. And I hope people can follow their trajectory towards their source in the one who alone deserves to be lionised.

I use that word deliberately, not merely as a pun on the lion in the golden syrup brand, but because one of the many titles given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘the lion of the tribe of Judah’. In Revelation 5 verse 5, the writer, John, hears a heavenly figure telling him, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”. It is a message of hope. A call to follow the spires’ trajectory. To see that there is a reason for joy, not weeping, because someone is in control, behind the gloomy headlines of wars and the more trivial ones about rebrands. A triumphant lion. A mighty ruler who can open the scrolls that will unfold God’s judgement and the good future that follows.

When John looks, however, here is what he sees: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5 verse 6). Talk about bait and switch?!? Promised a lion, and he gets a lamb. But the point is that the lion is the lamb. The Lord Jesus came as the sacrificial lamb, to die for the sins of people like me, so we can be forgiven. He rose again triumphant, like a mighty lion, and he will bring judgement and then eternal peace to this world in due time. By faith in him, I can escape the judgement and share in the peace.

The Christian eye sees Christ everywhere. His story echoes implictly in the living lion of Tate and Lyle's new logo as it did explicitly in Lyle's original. When I compare the old and new Golden Syrup branding, I see his story. The dead lion of the old is relaced with a living lion in the new. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, something sweet has come from death. Discovering that is way better than syrup on your pancakes, toppling statues or celebrating history. The lion is alive. Taste and see that his way is sweet!

[ii] Ibid.

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