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Greggs and the Jesus sausage roll parable: food for thought?

High-street bakery chain Greggs has been causing a bit of a stir recently. The company is selling a Greggs version of an advent calendar, with a different food voucher behind each window.

And it emerged that Greggs has used a controversial photo that depicts a Christmas nativity scene behind one of the windows. It’s not exactly a traditional take on the nativity as the image shows a sausage roll swapped for Jesus in a crib.

Unsurprisingly, the photo was criticised by some people who felt it was disrespectful to Christians and the Christian faith.

Whilst Greggs has claimed it was ‘sorry to have caused any offence, this was never our intention’ it seems this wasn’t an accident, but a well-planned PR stunt.

It’s very hard to believe that Greggs’ PR and communications teams weren’t expecting a reaction like the one they got. So let’s assume it wasn’t unintentional. We think there’s two ways of looking at this.

You could argue it’s a smart bit of PR, a great stunt that drew huge attention, and according to national media coverage, a big sales boost. Brands have to work super-hard to get cut through in a world where consumers’ brains are saturated with brand messages.

And this was a top-effort by the creative team at Greggs that put the brand in-front of millions of people and sold a few bakeries worth of pastries.

Or, you could argue that it’s sad and cynical ploy. They manufactured a negative reaction out of a religious group and other people to create social media buzz and news headlines, to sell more products.

High marks for how to hijack news agenda in the run-up to Christmas, zero marks for cultural empathy or social responsibility.

Would Greggs have mocked any other religion like this? It’s hard to imagine. Greggs should respect all faiths equally. Sure, they don’t have to agree with them, but there’s no need to needlessly torment their followers for a sales boost either.

Getting cheap laughs like this may work in the short term and generate a rise in sales but it could be costly for Greggs’ long term reputation. Especially as 60% of the UK population identify as Christian.

For example, how many people have now boycotted Greggs as a result of this? The impact may not be clear immediately but could be evident over time.

It’s a fact that it is hard for brands to always get it right when it comes to representing religion and religious festivals. But then seemingly going out of their way to cause offence, as it appears Greggs did, is a sure way to spoil a reputation.

Whilst there is a balancing act between needing to cause shock to promote a brand and respecting everyone, do Greggs really want to be known as a company that puts selling pastries before respecting people?

It’s food for thought.