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

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.

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

Categories:   advertising, brand advertising, brand marketing, brands, Business and Strategy, Communication, consumer marketing, marketing, Marketing Research, Product Innovation, Retail, Retail marketing, Social Media

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