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While the high street crumbles, Greggs is on a roll

In a time of huge national division, people across the UK have united behind an unlikely banner: Greggs, the bakery.

Its £1 vegan sausage roll recently sparked a national frenzy. It sold out soon after launch and Greggs’ Twitter feed filled with messages reassuring customers that more would be available soon. Despite Piers Morgan fuelling the public debate, in his typical fashion, by criticising the chain for being ‘PC-ravaged clowns’, there are heaps of favourable reviews of the treat - from meat-eaters and vegans alike. And this masterclass in product roll-out is no fluke. Greggs knows exactly how to navigate a trend, and deploy a marketing tactic.

Under chief executive Roger Whiteside, appointed in 2013, Greggs has turned itself around. Firstly, it’s repositioned. It’s no longer a take-home offer: it’s ‘food-on-the-go’. Unbelievably affordable food-on-the-go at that. It’s got its pricing model right by applying serious rigour across its supply chain, which it owns. It will be investing £100m into manufacturing and distribution centres in the UK this year, meaning end-to-end control of its operations.

Secondly, it’s protected its estate. Its 1,953 stores are a utilitarian but cherished part of the British High Street. They’re holding strong in places where other retailers are on their knees, providing much-needed jobs and helping keep communities intact.

And communities have always been important to the business. Long before having a social purpose became popular, the brand was taking its responsibilities seriously. The Greggs Foundation, which is devoted to "Making a difference at the heart of our local communities", was set up in 1987 and distributes around £3m per year to local communities, running breakfast clubs in schools and donating unsold food to charities and food banks.

Thirdly, and most interestingly perhaps, it’s universal. It serves over six million people a week and doesn’t subscribe to narrow customer profiling, appealing to whole swathes of the population including many who feel increasingly disenfranchised. It’s more open-minded about its customers than you’d expect - as evidenced by the creation of the vegan roll.

It's built on a highly relatable notion of Britishness. It’s proud of its roots in the northeast, giving it a distinct personality and a strong connection to an original founder and a particular heritage. At the same time, it isn’t wedded to a nostalgic version of times past. Savvy marketing initiatives, including the reversed logo in Fenwicks’ window, keep it relevant and contemporary as a brand, and it never takes itself too seriously. It’s about pastry, after all.

While some of its innovations have failed (an attempted expansion into Belgium didn’t end well, neither did a campaign putting a festive bake at the heart of a nativity scene), nevertheless, its open-minded attitude and enthusiasm for experimentation has delivered more often than not. The launch of its drive-through format and franchise partnerships, for example, means Greggs is now present in service stations and petrol forecourts.

The only real skeleton in the closet is around health. How are its high-fat, low-price and tempting products contributing to our growing obesity problem? Is providing a ‘healthier’ range, which makes up over 10% of sales, going far enough? All this being said, there’s a lack of judgement at the heart of the Greggs personality, meaning providing the stuff we love but probably shouldn’t have as much is a key part of its brand.

Overall, the company’s ability to adapt to what its customers want, while maintaining its identity, is impressive. Today, Greggs is fast, friendly and all-embracing in a way that very few brands can - legitimately - be. Piers Morgan’s ire is, once again, just another reason to believe in a brand.

Sairah Ashman is global CEO at Wolff Olins. 

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