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Greg Webb
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Whole Foods: When a High-Quality, Healthy Brand Has a Big Fail

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As every businessperson knows, ‘brand’ or ‘branding’, is vitally important. It helps successful businesses stand apart.  A brand can and should be about a company’s values, work ethics, and its products and/or services. The brand is used to reflect who the company is and what it stands for.  Or, when a company goes astray, it can manipulate its customers with the image (branding) it projects – wrongfully projects, perhaps.

Whole Foods is an excellent example of how a business can turn itself into something that draws a very unique, affluent crowd.  Stores like Kroger, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, and other mainstream grocery stores all look pretty much the same. None of those stores have gone out of their way to greatly differentiate their shopping experiences from that of their competitors.

But Whole Foods?  It has been a great example of tremendously effective, upscale branding, setting itself apart from the pack.  And the way in which it has grown its business and touted its ethical, snooty, environmental stance has distinguished it from other stores.  And, by virtue of its “do-good” creed, it has  set the bar quite high, setting a higher standard to uphold for its customers. And this is why the recent revelations about Whole Foods’ pricing and packaging are so shocking, and contrary to everything its customers (including yours truly on occasion) thought and expected Whole Foods to stand for – integrity, wholesomeness, and value.  (Well, maybe not so much “value”).

Consider the big marketing push from Whole Foods, released last fall. It was  pushing back against the competition in the organic food arena and trying to convince people that Whole Foods stood for more than mere groceries. It put $15-20 million into that branding campaign, with this message:  “We want people and animals and the places our food comes from to be treated fairly. The time is right to champion the way food is grown and raised and caught. So it’s good for us, and for the greater good, too. This is where it all comes to fruition. This is where values matter. Whole Foods Market, America’s healthiest grocery store.”  Oh my.

With the recent false and misleading labeling scandal, Whole Foods might as well have flushed that money down the toilet. Branding itself as a corporation that cares about people cannot exist in the same space as mislabeling and misleading people.  Flat out tricking them – stealing from them one might say.  In late June, the New York Department of Consumer Affairs charged Whole Foods with overcharging customers by labeling the weight of products improperly. Last year the state of California levied an $800,000 fine against Whole Foods for similar issues found in stores in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Of course Whole Foods is challenging the allegations. Its lawyer, John Hempfling, is reported to have said, “They’ve never provided any evidence.”  (NYTimes.com, 6/24/15)  That is not a very convincing defense from a company that is all about value and values.

Many people refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck”. Shopping at Whole Foods is an expensive and carefully orchestrated experience. The stores are eco-friendly and a little hip (they do have wine bars, after all). The layout itself screams organic and healthy. Its policies are pretty consumer-friendly. I once had a clerk pause in the checkout and walk with me to find the exact salad dressing I wanted. She gave it to me for free. They want you to feel nurtured when you shop there. We go out with a much lighter purse or wallet, but we leave feeling as if we have helped to save our planet and improve our health.

So how does it feel when we hear stories about price gouging? And, how do we reconcile these unsavory stories with the image we have (at least I had) bought into? And the feel-good experience, that warm glow of planet-saving time that comes from shopping there? Sure, perhaps I am being a little snarky here, but I think this is something we ought to think about. Today’s sophisticated marketing campaigns for everything from toilet paper to the drugs we expect our doctors’ to give us are designed to play on our emotions. If we buy into the marketing and follow the ‘call to action’ do we not have a right to feel a little outrage at being manipulated?  Yessir, we do.  Frankly, I already felt gouged every time I slid my debit card through the machine in the check-out line.  Now?  I almost feel criminally assaulted.   Particularly when the image being conveyed is one of stewardship of our environment and high quality products. It is one thing to be tricked by Big Pharma, for example, but Whole Foods actively seeks to attract those of us who want to make a positive impact in the world, who, perhaps, advocate for social justice.  Not to mention good health.   Whole Foods’ apology a week later (after it got caught red-handed), rings somewhat hollow.   How about a price reduction for a few months to catch people up with the amount they have over-payed?

Unfortunately, now I wonder how many times I was snookered by Whole Foods, on top of paying already ridiculous prices.  And I am a cynic by nature, so the fact that I was snookered hurts a little more.  The only words I can think of are:  “Et tu, Brute?”

NOTE:  This article originally appeared on the MichieHamlett Personal Injury Blog.