Intentionally or not, Greggs has walked into a perfect storm in a polystyrene cup with its advent calendar ad which replaces Jesus with a sausage roll in the nativity scene. Publicly, the brand may be eating humble pie, but with only 1.5% of the country regularly attending church, whatever sales Greggs loses will be dwarfed by the huge gains that follow widespread national coverage.
Madonna outraged clergymen on the release of her smash hit, Like a Prayer. It was a calculated move and propelled her from singer to superstar. Causing controversy is part of brand Madonna, however, but the same might not be said for a high-street baker.
Religious satire will always cause controversy. It might be OK for Monty Python’s Life of Brian or other theatrical and literary examples to provoke a reaction by parodying religion, but is it ok for a consumer brand?
Greggs needs to ensure that all its communications sing from the same hymn sheet. Amid the kerfuffle and the boycott calls, there is another view shared by many on social media: humour. This saw some tweeters calling for ironic boycotts of Babybel (for their depictions of the baby cheesus) or noting that Jesus backwards is Susej (sausage, kind of). And that was probably Greggs’ intention, to be humorous, to cut through the so-called ‘SADvertising’ we’ve seen from so many other brands’ Christmas campaigns.
Maybe the marketing team didn’t foresee the impact that it would cause, but is it a scandal? Not quite.
Should religion be used in brand marketing?
Let’s get one thing clear, it’s in no brand’s interest to cause offence to any group of people, nor should any brand set out to do so. Regardless of how you go about it.
Religious events and imagery have been used plenty of times in brand marketing. Mulberry gave us a parodied nativity in its 2015 Christmas campaign. It was well executed, funny and inoffensive. Greggs replaced Jesus with a sausage roll. An ill-considered attempt at promotion? Probably.
I understand the desire to create something that’s provocative and tongue-in-cheek but it needs to align with the brand’s identity. Pushing the boundaries in creative thinking and in marketing campaigns can be powerful. But you need to consider the brand’s heritage, history and positioning, even in what might seem like the smallest part of a bigger campaign.
It is perhaps surprising that many people (and brands) separate Christmas from Christianity. There's a monster under the bed and singing boxes, but the religious aspects of Christmas are minimised and avoided. Maybe Greggs has shown us why.
Some years ago, Dinosaur went down the route of a humorous Christmas card and we had some fun combining Kanye’s Shizzle, Mary Berry and other celebs with some of the festive traditions. It was pretty mild stuff. But we still received a complaint. We had unintentionally offended someone due to the beliefs they held, and I listened carefully. And that’s what I hope Greggs’ team is doing: listening to its audience, listening to the backlash, and learning from it.
There are more tasteful ways to generate fame, but then, this is Greggs after all. And considering it is only selling 500 of these calendars, Greggs couldn’t have planned this better if it had tried. “He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty roll!”
Mark Beaumont is chief creative officer at Dinosaur