Whole Foods and the brand promise

Whole Foods is a clear example of a mission-driven company. Over the years, they’ve taken strong activist stances on a number of topics related to healthy living. In fact, they are one of the few big corporations that I’ve seen actually link to their values as a main navigation element on their homepage. You’ve probably also seen these same values posted in your local store. I think this is awesome.

wholefoodsAnd personally, I love Whole Foods. My guess is, based on their corporate values, that their core customer leans to the left politically.

This week, in the Wall Street Journal, John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, wrote an editorial entitled The Whole Foods alternative to Obamacare.

I see the strategy… a few weeks ago, Whole Foods launched a campaign to help empower Americans to lead healthier lives. At the campaign launch, Mackey even said Whole Foods is going to reverse the 14 year trend toward having more pre-processed food in their stores. I’m sure this editorial was one piece of a larger campaign strategy. And certainly most people would agree that Americans could use a healthier diet.

In moving from talking about healthier food into talking about healthcare, Whole Foods has hit on a massively politicized issue. When your core customers lean to the left, and as a corporate leader you take a position to the right, you take a risk that people might start to question whether they really affiliate themselves with your brand promise.

Since the editorial ran, customers have lit up the Whole Foods Market forum on the website. When I look at the forum, the discussion has been shut down. A sample:

After reading this piece in the WSJ not a penny more of my hard earned money will go to Whole Foods. It appears to me that the CEO is out of touch with what his consumers feel and I would guess his employees as well. As there are a multitude of farmers markets, stores, and co-ops that provide healthy organic options in NY I think the best way to vote will be to vote with my purse. Goodbye Whole Foods, in the past I didnt mind paying a little more for healthy foods with a strong social conscious, seeing as how you’ve lost your conscious you’ve also lost my business.

It will be interesting to see how Whole Foods handles things over the next few days. They’ve had issues like this in the past and have always managed to recover. I wish them the best of luck, my fresh food choices in Raleigh are still limited, and I believe very strongly in the core values of Whole Foods and what they stand for as a company!

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


9 thoughts on “Whole Foods and the brand promise

  1. Hi. I love whole foods and I don’t lean left. I lean libertarian. I do almost all of our shopping there. I WHOLEHEARTEDLY support Mr. Mackey’s article and praise him for speaking his mind. I also happen to agree with his points and find it a very well-reasoned and smart response to a completely stupid proposal. I think it is ridiculous for people to say they’re going to boycott Whole Foods because they have a disagreement with the CEO politically. How childish. It’s as childish as the Limbaugh lovers who boycott Ben and Jerry’s because they disagree with them. PLEASE grow up people. Dissent is TOTALLY American. Debate is HEALTHY. To many who read this site, it seems to only be healthy when the messages are coming from the left.

    Posted by Not everyone leans left | August 13, 2009, 2:50 pm
  2. In a way, I think this is similar to celebrities sharing their political opinions. I don’t really care what so-and-so thinks, but now that I know, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and I’m not eager to send money in his or her direction.

    Posted by Rebecca Fernandez | August 13, 2009, 2:59 pm
  3. From a branding perspective I think the mistake was to title the piece “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare”. He would have easily gotten across his points and had plenty of readers without so obviously linking his company with his position on health care. As an aside, the high deductible insurance / high health savings accounts proposal seems like a fairly good idea. Im pretty sure this is the system they have in Singapore, and one Ive seen economists say makes sense because it incents people to manage their own health and keep medical spending down, while still covering them if something catastrophic goes wrong.

    Posted by Rick | August 13, 2009, 3:58 pm
  4. Hi everyone,
    One quick point: Not sure that Mr. Mackey titled his piece. Having a sis in the newspaper biz and a father who writes op-ed pieces frequently, I know the headlines are usually not the author’s, but the paper’s. I agree the headline isn’t the best for the Whole Foods company.

    Chris Chris Chris, if you are trying to keep the bias out of it, you might not want to include such an inflammatory example from one side in the middle of the article. Seems a pretty obvious furthering of that person’s opinion, esp. when you say at the end that you’ll probably keep shopping there, but only because your options are limited. My dear, you are not keeping bias out of it, but as it is your blog, you certainly do not need to. Although apparently many do not believe Mr. Mackey should have an opinion different from their own and esp. not, god forbid, voice it in public, I do think you have that right and am glad that you take the time to do so.

    Rick, I agree with you.

    Over and out!

    Posted by Not everyone leans left | August 13, 2009, 4:35 pm
  5. Chris, I think your marketing bias has clouded your judgment on this one more than your political views. Why? Because you seem to think this was done as a marketing move. I don’t see it that way at all. I see someone who took his opportunity to speak to the world on an issue he feels strongly about in a forum that carries significant weight. I don’t think he cares that this MIGHT cause a tiny dip in sales or marketing image or any of that. If he did, it’s WAY too obvious to someone who runs such a successful company to do anything like this. Touching a toxic issue at all like this can’t ever be a good thing for a company like his, in fact.

    He has little competition for what he does (as you state!). He knows it. He also knows that while he could have inflamed a few people just enough to leave his store forever, he probably gained more of us on the right enough to make up for it. So while you can still argue that might have hurt his brand to some degree, I applaud him for having the cajones to speak his mind on such a polar issue. But then again, I agree with him almost 100%, so it’s easy for me to say that. :-)

    In fact, I had already posted a link to the article on my own blog before you posted this stating just that.


    Posted by Donnie Barnes | August 13, 2009, 5:10 pm
  6. Brand promise — or our own projection?

    Hey Chris — Upon first reading about this op-ed, I did feel a bit gut-punched and betrayed by Whole Foods. Although to be honest, I live in DC with a Harris-Teeter right next to my building, so my visits to WF have pretty much ended except for certain cheeses or cuts of fish, because of convenience, and also because of the price point.

    I didn’t think I had any particular delusions about Whole Foods being a stalwart of progressive values… after all, there was a sort of messy takeover of the Wellspring market years ago in Raleigh, which I remember being talked about in the Independent weekly at the time. However, thinking about this overnight, it seems to me that much of the brand value that is discussed here seems to come from consumer projection — there is no overt statement that I can find in their marketing that seems to make any political point. The marketing copy that I’ve seen around the stores is about their efforts to buy from local producers, or to talk about their recycling, or biodegradable packaging. There is a bulletin board where community members can post events, often of a progressive nature.

    I think many of us filled in the rest of the picture. I wonder how aware Mackey was about that. And it remains to be seen whether the op-ed will shake their customer base up so much that it affects their sales figures. However, it’s fascinating to think about how much of a brand promise comes from consumer’s aspirations attempting to fill a vaccumm.

    – Marc

    Posted by Harkness | August 14, 2009, 6:38 am
  7. Marc, I think that’s a really valid point. Why? Because I’m much more right than left and even though I shopped at WF occasionally, I felt the picture was probably the same as you point out most of the left-minded consumers at WF seemed to have thought. Didn’t bother me, but I figured that’s the way it was.

    So I found it refreshing that there was a significant anti-Obamacare component to the WF leadership. Others are obviously a little bit annoyed by it. :-)

    And more food for thought to the marketing types…I can’t say where my basis on any of that came from other than the picture Marc paints of what you see in the store. I’ve never been on the WF website before yesterday, and can’t recall a single piece of WF advertising I’ve ever seen.


    Posted by Donnie Barnes | August 14, 2009, 8:59 am
  8. God help us. The Left is ready to stick a knife in one of the premier models of corporate & environmental responsibility because its leader’s views differ from their own? Never mind that Whole Foods employs thousands and thousands of people, pays 100% of their health care premiums (must be nice), and leads the way in many environmental causes so dear to the Left. Screw that, let’s bring this company DOWN!

    Posted by OP Air Hockey Champion | August 14, 2009, 1:47 pm
  9. Pretty interesting expansion on John Mackey’s article appeared in RealClearMarkets today. Explains how a high deductible plan might work.

    Posted by Rick | August 19, 2009, 4:32 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Hey, I Wrote a Book!

The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World

Available now in print and electronic versions.

%d bloggers like this: