Giraffe or Tiger? No customer suggestion is a small one.

In 2011, then three-year-old (three and a half if you were to ask her) Lily Robinson of the United Kingdom wrote a letter asking a simple zoology question to nationwide grocery store chain Sainsbury’s. Her letter and the response she received went viral, changed a product and taught valuable lessons about brands listening to even the smallest voices.

Lily Robinson illustrates her letter to Sainsbury’s with a picture of a tiger and her imaginary pet. (Source: jamandgiraffes.com)

Lily Robinson illustrates her letter to Sainsbury’s with a picture of a tiger and her imaginary pet. (Source: jamandgiraffes.com)

During a routine grocery shopping trip, Lily saw tiger bread in the bakery. Confused, she asked her parents why it was called tiger bread if it looked more like a giraffe. Her parents, amused by the question, said to ask the grocery store where she saw the bread.

The curious tot couldn’t let it go, and before long had drafted a letter to the Sainsbury’s executive office, complete with original artwork she had drawn in true three-year-old fashion. Lily’s mother, Lucy Robinson, sent the letter thinking that would be the end of it.

It wasn’t.

Less than two weeks later, Lily received a letter from the Sainsbury’s Careline, the store’s customer service branch. The letter was written by employee Chris King and explained why the product is called “tiger bread” in a way that Lily would understand and appreciate. He even conceded that “renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?”

It was obvious to the Robinsons that Lily’s letter had actually been read and they had received a unique response, not just a stock letter. King even included a £3 gift card for Lily.

Much of public relations is trying to reach a wide audience, but sometimes taking the time to cater to individuals pays off. In this case, catering to the individual led to millions of positive media impressions for Sainsbury’s.

Lucy Robinson put pictures of the letters on her blog, which quickly went viral.

King receives fan mail and Sainsbury’s receives positive press for this response to Lily’s letter. (Source: jamandgiraffes.com)

King receives fan mail and Sainsbury’s receives positive press for this response to Lily’s letter. (Source: jamandgiraffes.com)

“This has all got very silly. I still find it funny that people are forwarding and promoting this story in all kinds of ways,” said Robinson. “Lily is still very excited that her letter is on the internet, but is more interested in nursery, her imaginary friends and reading.”

But Lily was not the only one that got international attention for this episode. The story went viral not just because of Lily’s adorably innocent question, but because of King’s brilliant reply and the positive light it shed on Sainsbury’s customer service.

Of the experience, King said, “It’s great to know that it’s put a smile on so many people’s faces. It was just a daft wee thing I did as I wanted to make sure this wee girl, who’d done brilliantly typing up her letter, got a nice reply.”

From this interaction, Sainsbury’s received a lot of media attention, specifically a petition to change the bread’s name permanently. The petition could have been viewed as another silly joke, but Sainsbury’s once again showed its commitment to pleasing customers by taking the petition seriously. Shortly after the letters and the petition went viral, Sainsbury’s officially changed the bread’s name to “Giraffe Bread.”

From a public relations perspective, just listening to the suggestion and going along with the joke would have been enough. However, Sainsbury’s taking actual action – an action driven by a powerful narrative – is sure to stick more firmly in the public’s mind when they are trying to pick a customer-friendly store.

It has been more than five years since this story played out, but the store has kept the product name change, much to the delight of its customers of all ages.

“Although the change happened a few years ago, the product is still on the shelf as ‘Giraffe Bread’ and I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon,” says current Sainsbury’s employee Shanice Spearman of Ipswich. “It is kind of a nice reminder to any customer that knows the story that Sainsbury’s listens.”

Sainsbury’s even has a page on its website explaining the origin of giraffe bread. The store is a national brand in the U.K., but with this small interaction with a clever three-year-old, it has shown that even the largest brands can benefit from listening to the smallest customers.

The key to positively relating with the public is to listen to what that public has to say, and sometimes the best suggestions can be found in the most unlikely places. By careful listening to all consumer feedback, public relations professionals just may strike gold the way Sainsbury’s did when asked a simple question by a three year old.

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