How Sainsbury’s and 'Gary' entered the social media hall of fame

Gary Cheese

In our recent Customer Journey Optimization webinar, we introduced the fact that the role of the marketer has evolved so much through social media that they can now be considered as a participant or spectator – rather than the guardian of their brand. 

Unlike marketing conducted via a company blog or campaign, social media marketing does not exist solely on the vendor’s turf. It can be publicly responded to and repurposed, with whatever content has been created now subject to the whims of all of those who may encounter it. By the time you read this, #covfefe will be a distant memory, but it was a meme that burned insanely bright across social media for all of, what, 12 hours?

For marketers, this means that the pace and the content of conversations around their brand are no longer entirely in their control. While content is carefully tailored and driven by the marketing team, the subsequent commentary from customers on Facebook or Twitter is entirely beyond the marketer’s control. The result is that the steering wheel is being eased from marketers’ hands as—one of many participants in a conversation rather than the dominant speaker.

When this shift first began, it took many marketers and brands by surprise, presenting them with a new status quo they weren’t entirely ready to navigate. That is not to say it was catastrophic.

Over time, savvy marketers have creatively adapted to the enhanced visibility of customer voices in the world of marketing. There were and are plenty of opportunities for marketers committed to evolution to seize on the dynamism of social media and sustain their time in the sun by embracing the quirks and energy of the medium. A particularly good example of this is the story of Gary, who enters the pantheon of social media legends, alongside such greats as Oreo’s ‘Dunk in the Dark’ and Wendy’s ‘Nuggs for Carter’ Twitter triumphs.


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For those unfamiliar with Gary, he is not a person but a vegan cheese substitute from UK supermarket Sainsbury’s. Made, of all things, from coconuts. For the most part, Sainsbury’s customers took this in their stride, none too bothered by the idea that vegans should have the option to eat something like cheese. Not everyone felt the same.

In a furious post on Facebook, one Sainsbury’s customer angrily explained that what the supermarket was advertising could not be called vegan cheese, because cheese by nature isn’t vegan. They argued—with impressive fervor—that the fact it was made from coconuts meant that is simply was not cheese, full stop. “Call it Gary or something [sic] don’t call it cheese,” the customer wrote. The post was shared and quickly became viral.

A less shrewd (or responsive) marketing team might never have acknowledged the rant, let alone capitalized on it but on that day, Gary—the cheese—was born. Seeing the interest the discussion was generating, Sainsbury’s (who has seen past social media success with it's "Giraffe Bread") decided to join with a tongue-in-cheek response ‘officially’ renaming the product.

Social media is a vastly unpredictable platform; but, for a brand that can roll with the punches, it’s also a very useful one. Looking at the story of Gary, we see a brand that took advantage of the sort of customer engagement you’re unlikely to garner outside of the informal atmosphere of social media. Sainsbury’s succeeded by making its business appear more accessible, more oriented towards customer interaction, and, importantly, good humored and ‘human’.

It’s almost as heartwarming a story as the man behind the Waterstones Oxford Street Twitter account whose posts were so popular it landed him a wife (and Waterstones some pricelessly positive brand sentiment at the same time).

This approach does have its risks, though. It’s all too easy for an organization to overdo it with their social media presence: overeagerly co-opting hashtags on Twitter or Instagram, trying just a little too hard to seem like any other person on Facebook as opposed to a business. While Skittles gained a huge amount of respect in its response to Donald Trump Jr.'s comments about refugees, others have hit the wrong note with their intentions.

Just ask Cinnabon, whose misplaced tribute to the passing of Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher quickly faced the wrath of the internet. Or when Crocs thought David Bowie’s death was an opportunity to push its footwear.

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Not only that, any sense that a brand is mimicking the behaviors of regular social media interaction rather than acting naturally will quickly have customer feeling that something seems off. A glance at the Denny’s Tumblr blog, for example, will soon demonstrate that any sort of success sustaining a genuinely weird and unconventional tone (or sassy, in the case of the Wendy’s Twitter) that appeals to constantly changing internet pop culture requires total dedication. 

The brilliance, then, of Sainsbury’s strategy was that it was relatively spontaneous. They didn’t plan for that customer to write that post. They didn’t poll consumers for a new name for their cheese substitute. They simply reacted to an example of customer engagement enabled through social media, and incorporated it into their product model. It was all serendipity: natural, organic, and unique to its platform.

When used correctly, social media allows brands unprecedented access to their consumer base, and a raw look at how those consumers feel about their business. It promotes the development of a new marketing voice that, when done well, fits the style of the medium. Certainly, not every experiment is successful, but, with consideration and careful observation, social media marketing is a sphere in which an organization can really strike gold—or, even better, Gary.


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