Why Greggs has become a brand to truly admire

November 2017

About 10 years ago I was carrying out a brand strategy project for Sodexo. If you don’t know the company, then essentially their core business is food services and across every sector you could think of. For example, canteens, restaurants and cafés for schools, universities, military sites, hospitals, factories and office blocks. They’re a global giant in what they do, and I must say it’s a terrific business and one I very much enjoyed working for.

The particular division I worked for was Sodexo Education, with my brief to review their offer in private schools, colleges and universities. On the latter, I’d been discussing with the MD (who I was reporting to on the project) competition which sat outside campuses, and a number of names and types of food outlet and retailer came up – in particular supermarket chains with local convenience store formats such as Tesco.

My daughter was then in her second year of university, so as some ad-hoc research I thought I’d ask her where she and her mates went for breakfast when they left their decidedly shabby shared house in an equally shabby area of Cardiff. “Oh we call in at Greggs and get sausage rolls” she told me – and in a way that suggested that I should have known this was the obvious course of action. Well I didn’t know, and indeed I was barely aware of Greggs back in 2008 – and neither apparently was my client as the brand hadn’t even come up in conversation.

Arguably, both my client and I should have had this emerging baker and fast food outlet firmly on our radar, but in fairness the company was far smaller than it is today. But anyway, we certainly did after that point and, since then, I’ve gone on to be a big fan of the brand – albeit I very rarely buy from them. And the reason for the latter is that I love their brand and what it stands for, but not so much sausage rolls and the like.

One of the reasons I admire Greggs so much, is that I believe that its brand saliency and value has grown at a more recent and accelerated rate than sales have. So looking at sales back in 2008 and when my sudden realisation of what Greggs was about took place, sales were £628m. Then ten years on in 2016 a very impressive £894m – and fair to say that figure represents a hell of lot more pastry and fillings to put in it. However, as much as this 42% increase in sales across the decade is fairly impressive, I’d wager that the strength of the brand and therefore its value has dwarfed the increase in sales. But how could that be? Well you can be a successful enough business if managed well and with reasonable brand strength to ensure growth, and I suspect that’s what Greggs relied upon for many decades (and interestingly the business was founded in 1939). But in a UK brand sense, to my mind Greggs is now in a totally different place to what it was a decade back.

It can of course be difficult to articulate just what we think a brand stands for, but it’s no secret that Roger Whiteside, CEO of Greggs, was successful in changing the brand’s market positioning from baker to more to food-on-the-go competitor to the likes of McDonalds and Starbucks. Which I was reminded of a few months back when I stopped for a break at a service station on the M6, and there close to the main entrance was a sort of temporary looking building no doubt winched into place by a crane and off the back of big truck, but none the less looking every part a credible Greggs – and with a queue of folk out the door eagerly waiting to place their breakfast order.

But actually for me it’s less about a change in brand positioning, and more Gregg’s continued and unashamedly bold stance on its product offering. So in an age where we’ve seen the decline of McDonalds and despite a raft of attempts to reposition their offer, Greggs has largely just stuck to its guns and made no apologies for doing so – whilst at the same time also attracting new customers with healthier options. What’s more and in a world of technology, gimmicks, bullshit claims, uncertainty and ever-changing trends, there’s something very steady, honest and unpretentious about the Greggs brand. And I’d bet good money that a proper piece of consumer research would confirm exactly that.

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