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Media Greggs PR Stunts

How a bold vegan sausage roll launch left Piers Morgan with Greggs on his face


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

January 4, 2019 | 6 min read

Greggs' marketing team has acknowledged that the launch of its divisive vegan sausage roll has tapped into a very British “cultural moment” after setting social media alight and igniting the ire of Piers Morgan.

On Thursday (3 January), as steak pie leftovers were still wafting through households across the nation, the UK bakery chain introduced a meat-free menu pastry option, the vegan sausage roll, in the style of a faux-Apple product launch.

The work snowballed into something more significant than a product launch and sparked, rather than rode, the vegan debate for several days, gaining substantial coverage in the UK press.

Neil Knowles, digital brand manager at Greggs, talked The Drum through the campaign developed by the baker’s in-house marketing team and agency partners, Havas PR and Splendid Communications. The brief was to launch the product as ‘premium and desirable’ and tap into 'Veganuary' as consumers solidify (or break) their new dieting and eating resolutions.

The product itself was launched off the back of a Peta petition urging the chain to alter its menu to accommodate vegans. In this vein, it’s not dissimilar to Iceland’s Christmas-winning palm oil creative campaign which originated from an idea by Greenpeace. More than 20,000 people had signed Peta’s petition to pressure Greggs to adopt a Quorn-filled sausage roll.

Helping cause a storm around the seemingly innocuous launch was outspoken broadcaster Piers Morgan, who had beef with the very notion of a vegan option. “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns," he tweeted to his 6.5m followers.

With the trap set, Greggs' official Twitter account responded: “Oh hello Piers, we've been expecting you.” 20,000 retweets and 144,000 likes duly followed.

Cynical observers suggested the spat may have been orchestrated by Greggs' and Morgan's mutual PR acquaintance Taylor Herring, an agency which has previously worked on projects for both parties. Knowles rubbished claims that the agency in any way sent the former newspaper editor at the baker. The controversial chat show host later took aim at McDonald’s for implementing vegetarian options, indicating he was on a wider meaty crusade instead.

“We enjoy a conspiracy as much as the next guy and we’re sorry to quash this one, it wasn’t," Knowles said. What is true is that the brand courted journalists as the back to work blues were likely settling in their newsrooms. “The new Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll was delivered to media to allow them to taste the quality of the product, even if they’d never tried Vegan food before. The feedback has spoken for itself."

The pivot to vegan is a bold stance we ought to see more brands taking in the common months; Greggs won’t be alone in noting increased desire for meat-free options.

“We understand that vegan (and vegetarian) diets are of growing importance to many people, whether that be for moral or health reasons, or indeed both," Knowles said. "We know there has been a lot of customer demand for Greggs to produce a Vegan Sausage Roll. What’s more, research has shown that vegans struggle to find tasty savoury snacks. We’re pretty hopeful we’ve got this right too, with sales and customer response already being so strong.”

The work has been in production for a while, he admitted, but the team had the confidence to sit on it until 2018 had run its course, hoping for uplift from the 3 January launch when news cycles are slowly gearing up again after the festive break. Greggs already shifts around 1.5m sausage rolls weekly, but now around 900 of its 1,850 stores are stocking a vegan alternative to help expand the classic British baker’s consumer base and accommodate for a trend towards meat-free alternatives.

The launch video (above) has received 4.86m views on Twitter, 1.2m on Facebook and 14,000 on YouTube, parodying an overly dramatic smartphone launch. Vice taste-tested both products against each other, playing into the debate that followed. Notably, there was a contingent of trialists who wrongly guess which sample the meat free option was.

“We wanted to launch an integrated campaign that would be relevant to our personality and our audience, so launching a spoof worked perfectly," explained Knowles. "Our activity centered around our film and we used this as our announcement through all channels as it allowed us to be tongue in cheek with our ‘next generation’ launch. Media engagement throughout has also been key, we spoke with both media contacts and influencers ahead of the launch providing the video content and press mailers.”

It is perhaps not a launch just any brand could have replicated. Greggs has 80 years of goodwill from the UK public and an authentic place in debates about meat consumption, being so prevalent on the high street. Knowles said: “Greggs is a loved British brand with a strong and unique personality that everyone can relate to, our social channels are a way to bring this personality to life. Our social content regularly catches the attention of the general public as well as many high-profile personalities.”

Knowles and Greggs' in-house marketers are getting used to the acclaim. The very same team garnered similar levels of attention by reversing a shop sign in the run up to Christmas to capitalise on the popularity of Fenwick's famous Christmas window display opposite its store in Newcastle.

Knowles concluded: “Greggs launching a Vegan Sausage Roll is a big deal – it’s a sign that veganism is now becoming mainstream.”

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