It was, depending on your tolerance for social media cuteness, a stroke of marketing genius, or an exchange that was as cloying as an iced bun topped with a glacé cherry. It also revealed a lot about how a bakery founded in Newcastle almost 70 years ago defied food snobs to become bigger than McDonald's.
First, the exchange. On Tuesday, Twitter users noticed something amiss in Google's profile of Greggs. The panel, which appears alongside results when you search "Greggs", carried the usual Wikipedia intro ("Greggs plc is the largest bakery chain in the United Kingdom, with 1,671 outlets...) but the wrong logo. Trawling the web, a Google bot had taken one from a Wikipedia parody site. The offensive slogan: "Providing shit to scum for over 70 years" (in place of "Always Fresh. Always Tasty").
At Greggs HQ in Jesmond, Newcastle, digital brand manager Neil Knowles had become aware of the cock-up not long after arriving at his desk. Within a couple of hours, it had gone viral as thousands of users shared it with glee. This was potentially embarrassing and damaging for the brand. So how to respond? Sue Google? Issue a corporate statement? Or, like a stale biscuit served up by an ageing relative, swallow it and let things settle?
None of the above. Instead, as the lol-filled tweets piled up, Knowles posted a photo to Greggs' 88,000 followers: a tray of doughnuts. The words: "Hey @GoogleUK, fix it and they're yours!!! #FixGreggs". Taking just 28 minutes to craft its response, Google UK's nameless digital guys replied: "Sorry @GreggstheBakers, we're on it. Throw in a sausage roll and we'll get it done ASAP. #FixGreggs". Their photo: Homer Simpson distracted by doughnuts while at work.
Just two minutes later, at 3:32pm, Knowles replied: "We love you Google!!!!" whilst also responding to scores of consumer tweets. At 3:47pm, at last, the crisis was over. "That's all done now @GreggstheBakers, #FixGreggs is now #FixedGreggs," Google tweeted. But Knowles was on a roll. "Aaaand relax! Maybe those kind folks @GoogleUK could give us the doodle tomorrow?" he tweeted. He had arranged 25 sausage rolls into the word "Google" in the attached photo.
But wait, there was more. Another 37 minutes ticked by and Google posted a picture. Despite the demands of representing one of the world's biggest companies, it had found an almost identical round table, laid the same pieces of paper on it, and scattered them with pastry flakes. The message: "Whoops! Sorry @GreggstheBakers. #FixGreggs #FixedGreggs #AteGreggs."
What are we to make of all this? Not much. But it was a great day for Knowles. He has now been hailed, if not by name, as a genius for averting a potential crisis and swapping top bants with Google. "Greggs gives lesson in Twitter crisis management," read a headline at PR Week. Campaign magazine distilled this lesson: "Act fast; react like a human; build on the situation."
There was a sense of surprise, too, that Greggs had displayed such social media savvy, out-tweeting Google. This wasn't a tech company with roots in Silicon Valley, but a bakers from the North-east. What founder John Gregg would have made of it is anyone's guess. He was 14 when he began delivering eggs for the family business in the 1920s. He later acquired a van and in 1951 opened a bakery on Gosforth high street.
Not everyone was that impressed. "What really surprises me is that people think this is an amazing thing," says Mark Longbottom, a social media consultant. "It's just natural – they're talking to people... Twitter isn't so much a marketing tool as a platform for conversation."
Knowles had called me in response to my enquiry, but when asked about his triumph, he politely explained that he couldn't provide quotes unless they were authorised by his head of marketing. I would need to email questions and wait.
Either way, his answers did not arrive in time and, whatever the merit of his tweets, or any effect they might have on pastry sales, at the time of writing Google had not redrawn its logo in sausage rolls.