Did Whole Foods Market succeed because it caught the wave of consumer interest in organic food? Or did the chain's marketing help create that trend?
It's a chicken-and-egg question -- appropriate for a grocery chain.
Whole Foods' motto, “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet,” captures its idealized mission. Whole Foods has made health food not just a mainstream shopping experience, but also a luxury brand. The company spices its business with innovative marketing, both inside and outside its grocery stores.
Whole Foods' marketing includes lots of social outreach and involvement in “green” and sustainability initiatives. That's not surprising, given that the company was America’s first national certified organic grocer.
In addition to supporting green, sustainable produce procurement and store design, the Fortune 500 company has been one of the "Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For" every year since 1998.
Its employees have a well deserved reputation for being passionate and knowledgeable about store items. Curious about the lifestyle of a free-range chicken? Just ask the lady at the meat counter.
Recently, the chain launched Dark Rye, an online magazine exploring food, art, health, and sustainable living.
Acknowledging these efforts, the National Retail Federation in January named Whole Foods its annual Innovator of the Year.
Not bad for a company that grew from a single location in Austin, Texas, in 1980. Today, Whole Foods is one of the fastest-growing retail chains in the United States, with more than 310 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. In fiscal year 2011, the chain posted more than $10 billion in sales, seeing double-digit growth in a sour economy -- between 2009 and 2010, the chain grew 11.9 percent, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual Top 100 Retailers list. The growth is all the more remarkable given the chain’s reliance on higher-priced organic and green items.
That’s not to say Whole Foods has been uniformly praised. For years, snarky critics have called the store “Whole Paycheck,” a reference to its relatively high prices. Rather than disputing this, Whole Foods seems to be aware of the moniker and cleverly makes the best of it online. A Google search for “Whole Paycheck” brings up the Whole Foods home page at the top of the search results.
Whole Foods' rise is important because of what it says about a larger shift in affluent marketing, says Michael Pavone, founder of Pavone Marketing, an integrated food and beverage ad agency:
Does a bag full of organic produce say more about you than designer labels? For a new generation, does Whole Foods define the highest level of consumerism?...
Whole Foods has been able to create value (which justifies high prices) not just by providing hard-to-find organic or all-natural products and labels. They’ve also created a high-touch, overtly humanized experience that is designed to make you, the shopper, feel smarter, healthier, cooler, and wealthier than you do in any other food shopping experience.
Does Whole Foods appeal to affluent foodies? Sure, in part. But along with attention to experiential details that make food shopping interesting and educational, the Whole Foods brand explicitly promotes global causes like fair trade, environmentalism, sustainability, and, above all else, healthy living. In this respect, the chain is far ahead of its competitors, none of whom mix these ingredients together as expertly.
What do you think? How do you rate Whole Foods marketing? Let us know on the message board below.
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— Ellis Booker is a freelance journalist with extensive experience with business-to-business marketing.