Pie in the sky ideas – how Greggs became king of the publicity stunt

Could there be anything more heartwarming than a candlelit Valentine’s Day dinner at Greggs? And could there be anything more heartwarming to a PR agency than acres of news coverage and social-media chatter about the high-street pastry-pusher’s announcement? It was only a few weeks ago when news sites were writing about Greggs’ advent calendar, the publicity photographs for which replaced baby Jesus with a sausage roll.

“I think what Greggs have done really well over the last two years is sit in that tabloid-esque zone,” says PR expert Mark Borkowski. In a way, he says, “they are laughing at the foodie liberals”.

A few years ago, he says, Greggs was the butt of the joke. What it has done is embrace it. “It is not trying to be something it’s not. [Greggs has] a very strong sense of what it is and celebrates that with a sense of fun. Once you’ve got that perfect storm, it’s absolutely the stuff of social media – people share it, I’m talking about it, you’re writing about it.”

So, can we blame lazy journalists? (Perish the thought, although most papers are suckers for some easily digestible lightness amid the gloom.) “Persuading a journalist to write about a brand has become increasingly difficult,” says Lawrence Francis, director of consumer at the PR company Premier. “One way to do this is to court controversy – to create a story that will provoke a reaction and give news websites the clicks and below-the-line comments that some outlets crave. Greggs has achieved this by going down the path of ‘banter marketing’. It may not be subtle or clever, and I would question how effective it is in terms of selling more pastry, but in terms of raising brand awareness and generating noise around the brand it certainly seems to be working … so far.”

One day we will get tired of Greggs’ stunts, just as we did of Virgin’s and Paddy Power’s. “Banter marketing” is not new. And, points out Borkowski, “it’s difficult for food brands in this age when everybody is crawling over them – what’s in them? Fat content, salt content? In the meantime, they’re having a laugh.”