Is “Evil Empire” in the Whole Foods Brand Brief?

Whole Foods is just a business – driven by the demands of profits and shareholders. Still, they seem to regularly do things that contradict their brand (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C).

What’s surprising to me is that Whole Foods’ marketing team must realize their brand includes an inherent expectation that a healthy food market will be run with healthy ethics. Smart brand people would understand that their brand runs the risk of higher than normal damage if Whole Foods becomes perceived as an evil empire. And brand people would be savvy to the reality that perception on these issues will outweigh reality so they need to be quite savvy.

Yet Whole Foods just can’t seem to control themselves. The latest example comes as they start a major expansion into the Portland market which included this billboard.

Whole Food Hardball Billboard

This billboard looks innocent enough… But look carefully into the lower right of that photo. You will see a store called “New Seasons”. This isn’t just any New Seasons store – but it’s the first ever…the store that started their dramatic rise in Portland.

As a regular shopper at this New Seasons, one billboard convinced me that Whole Foods is a badly managed brand and may be seeking the title “evil empire”. Still, I figured this was a single shot over their bow – that they wouldn’t be dumb enough to make this region-wide.

But they have. I have seen, and have heard about, billboards all over Portland right next to New Seasons stores and on the critical roads approaching the stores.

Before you observe “but that’s just business” remember the additional expectation that falls on Whole Foods – to run a wholesome business. They clearly are failing to live up to that expectation with tactics like these.

Even more, they attacked a store which is valued with pride by Portlanders. Like Whole Foods, New Seasons is a “healthy foods” operation and, even better, a local success story. It has tremendous Portland loyalty. So it makes sense that Whole Foods thinks they need to steal customers (they are pretty desperate if these billboards are any indication). But is this heavy-handed attack the right approach in Portland? Why not steal them by offering a better product?

Heavy handed tactics haven’t worked for other companies in Portland. Maybe we are extra finicky here in our neck of the Northwest.

Walmart still struggles to get stores into significant areas of Portland (like our neighborhood). Why? Because they’re Walmart and we’re Portland.

And Einstein’s Bagels recently bought a local bagel shop then junked the name, junked their menu, junked their superb boiled bagels, and ended up closing all the outlets they’d bought (and most likely also lost any wholesale client’s they’d picked up). Their goodwill in the market evaporated faster than the magnesium flash in a science experiment.

So now we have Whole Foods putting on their “Wolf of Wall Street” act – they didn’t even add a sense of humor to that billboard!

These tactics in our local market are quite dissonant with the “wholesome” image that their brand needs. And that is bound to hurt Whole Foods (already suffering under their “Whole Paycheck” reputation) in Portland.

It may not matter. Because New Seasons has them beat. New Seasons isn’t cheap – but I’ve found that they’re not as expensive as Whole Foods. They have an excellent assortment of goods. A tremendous bakery and prepared foods operation. The owners even raise their own milk cows and have built an organic milk brand. But even better, they stock a very clever mix of product – including some low priced, daily use goods from more traditional grocery brands like Western Family. (So you can shop at New Seasons to feed your kids and yourself without breaking the bank with expensive Muesli for all.)

New Seasons is admired locally because they are interesting. They are local. They respond quickly to what our market wants. And the employee’s aren’t just local residents — they are empowered to do the smart, good things you’d expect in Portland. And my understanding is the employees are treated very well and with respect.

I’m definitely not suggesting that Whole Foods live by some mythical standard of marketing purity. But they need to better respect the core brand expectations they live under. There are vast numbers of ways to succeed in competing with New Seasons that don’t involve pissing off their core consumer.

And if I was an investor I’d want Whole Foods to get a better grip on reality. Because right now it looks like they may not be smart enough to grasp their excellent opportunity in the Portland, Oregon market. Sad.

Copyright 2014 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

8 Responses to Is “Evil Empire” in the Whole Foods Brand Brief?

  1. Bryan Scott says:

    Doug, are you saying that Whole Foods is committing a marketing error when they’ve identified potential customers, and presented information about their opening a new store to them?

    • Doug Garnett says:

      No. What I’m saying is that the way they go about wooing those customers is critical.

      And for two reasons here…

      …Whole Foods faces a market expectation such that heavy handed tactics violate their brand and leaving behind these impressions damages the brand.
      …Portland is a unique market where national chain tactics that might work in another state backfire with regularity and despite heavy investment of funds.

      In either case, it’s bad news for the bottom line. Businesses must be smarter. After watching Whole Foods for a few years it is beginning to look like there’s a rot at the core. Given momentum, that won’t be a problem for quite a few more years. But these mistakes will hurt in the long run.

      Thanks for the comment!


  2. Bryan Scott says:

    “Coming to Tigard, May 2014” plus their name and address doesn’t seem to me to be evil-empire-ish. These are not “heavy handed tactics” in my opinion.

    But, then again, I don’t live in Portland.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Success in marketing requires understanding any areas you are moving into. It’s a sign of classic bureaucratic blindness that the corporations noted here haven’t been able to find smart ways into Portland.

      As to the billboard, it is literally 5 feet off the New Seasons property. Kind of hard to argue that’s not heavy handed.

      The big issue for Whole Foods, though, is the bureaucratic rot that let’s poor decisions happen that hurt them in local markets. It’s really all about business and having the wisdom to perceive the impact of your actions.


  3. fritz says:

    This is an interesting post, just found it today, searching about the evil’s of whole foods. We have a local ‘festival’ that is all about heirloom seeds, home gardens, organic non gmo foods,etc. they feature speakers. when I saw their schedule it listed two individuals from whole foods. I fired an email off to them and asked why they would embrace corporatism and suggested some very suitable alternative speakers in regards to sustainability, etc. They sent out an email today, and those speakers are no longer scheduled.! I thought great, sent an email asking and one of them has supposed ‘family issues’…. so I again asked how these two worlds can possibly co-exist …. have not heard back.. I used to shop at whole foods but have found some local independent stores to spend my money at on things I can’t grow and support a local business. Examples of what you are showing is my point exactly about this corporation. it’s all about the money.

  4. Br.Bill says:

    I’ll shop at Whole Foods. But only if there’s not a New Seasons or Fred Meyer closer.

  5. dan says:

    Are you to suggest marketing tactics should never include anything that would take business away from a competitor? Or only when it takes business away from a small local business? Or only companies that are perceived as “wholesome” should follow different rules? If there is a line, where do you draw it?

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Absolutely not, Dan. Read closely… I don’t have a problem with competitive tactics. But you have to pick the ones that drive the best business result. Offending consumers in a market with heavy handed tactics does not produce the best business result.

      There are hundreds of smart competitive things Whole Foods can choose to do. Instead they seem to choose the worst ones for the market. I’ve seen marketing bureaucratic rot deliver results like this far too often.

      Cheers… And thanks for the comment.


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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: