The curious case of Sainsbury's and the tiger bread: What businesses can learn

giraffe bread

The reply by supermarket chain Sainsbury's to a child's letter about bread has struck a chord with the public. What can business owners learn about customer engagement?

When three-year-old Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury's to question why tiger bread was so named when it resembled the splotches on a giraffe, the story went viral and resulted in the company's eventual decision to rename the product.

How did the company's response benefit the brand and what can other brands learn from this? 

The story first began in May 2011 when three year-old Lily sent a letter to Sainsbury’s to say that tiger bread should be renamed 'giraffe bread'.

Chris King, Sainsbury’s customer manager at the time, responded to Lily with a letter agreeing with her idea, as well as including a gift token for Lily to buy some tiger bread from the store. King said: "I think renaming the bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it does look more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?"

Lily’s mum uploaded both Lily and King’s letters to her blog in June, resulting in a brief emergence across other blogs and social networks before dying down.

Fast forward to January 2012 and, despite the story being seven months old, the three-year old girl’s request to change Sainsbury’s labelling of tiger bread to 'giraffe bread' re-emerged and spread across the web after the story was shared on Facebook, Twitter and multiple blogs. 

According to one blogger, the customer service tale re-surfaced last month when two 'Power Facebook users' posted the story which broke out of the network, across the web and then back to Facebook.

After receiving support for Lily’s request, Lily’s mum set up a Facebook campaign on 25 January calling on Sainsbury’s to change the name, which to date is liked by almost 1,000 people. Nudged into action by the social media activity, less than a week later the supermarket chain announced that "in response to overwhelming customer feedback", the bread will now be called 'Giraffe Bread'.

So why did the story strike a chord with the public and take off across the web? Steven Dodds, co-founder of {united}, called the tale "genius", adding "it screams of spontaneous generosity and humanity."

Dodds said: "Consumers want to be able to put their trust in brands and this random act of kindness, which has made a strong impression on people, embodies the importance of that brands connect with customers. With people wanting to build relationships with less obviously managed brands, Sainsbury’s hits the mark in showing its human side."

A smart spin

After initial wariness that the story was a PR stunt, Sainsbury’s decision to rebrand the product has been hailed by some as a very positive move.

Chris Bucholtz, CRM Evangelist at SugarCRM, said: "From a CRM point of view, Sainsbury's manager handled it just right – he realised that a three-year-old is also a customer, and that customer input is valuable.

"CRM isn't really about technology; it's ultimately about what you do with the information you collect from customers. He could have laughed the letter off, but instead he escalated it and thanked Lily. That was smart because it gave Sainsbury's a great story around the bread, which helps with sales, and the subtext is that Sainsbury's is a store that listens to customers, and can relate even to a three-year-old well enough to change the name of a product based on her suggestions!"

Mark Dye, MD of White Label Media, commented: "The humour and warmth shown by a big brand like Sainsbury's conveys it as a warm down to earth, friendly and approachable brand staffed by real people rather than the complex and often frustrating IVR systems most consumers are faced with nowadays.

"At what represents a difficult time for the large supermarket chains, it also shows that they haven’t forgotten that most important of qualities in customer serving organisations – listening. In addition, it also highlights the value to be had from a good public relations team."

Lessons learned

Marie Taillard, professor of Marketing at ESCP Europe Business School, said: "Lessons for brands are clear. Don’t just listen to your customers, but engage with them every step of the way through social media and any other available channel. For retailers, stores are a huge opportunity for engagement – sales employees should all be sensitised to the fact that they are the most critical point of customer interface and intelligence. 

"Practically, brands should map out their customer experience journeys in great detail so as to clearly visualise every possible touch-point and have specific plans in place for how to engage through these touch-points on an on-going basis. As brand control continues to shift away from brand owners to their customers, we need to shift our mindset from 'How do we react to such one-off events' to 'How do we continuously engage with our customers to co-manage the brand?'"

Rhys Little from Plug and Play explained that Sainsbury's decision to rename the bread has reinforced that it cares about its customers and that it considers their opinions enough to cause a rebrand of a product.

"The impact it has had on the Sainsbury's brand is that it has reinforced that it cares about it's customers and that it considers their opinions enough to cause a rebrand of a product. An activity which would normally be exclusively an executive decision," he said.

"Big brands can learn that by listening, responding and caring about their customers and treating them with respect and care can have the potential to go viral. Don't be scared to shout about the lengths you would go to deliver quality customer care by giving customers what they want from them."

What is clear is that the story has attracted a lot of positive attention to the brand and generated invaluable PR, sweeping the web as well as traditional media. Meanwhile, Chris King has become an internet sensation with his own dedicated Facebook page - and is now training to become a primary school teacher. 

Still tiger bread to me!

I find it interesting that the Sainsbury employee so lauded for how he dealt with this as since left and is training to be a teacher.

But you can almost imagine the letter being pawed over by the marketing team.  We can use this one!  This might go viral!    It looses some of its appeal a little if you consider the cold hard facts.    

Thankfully most people think it is a man in his office who received the letter and decided to do something nice for the child rather than seek to exploit the situation.  

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