Whole Foods: How They Can Rewrite Their Story and Win the PR War

Published: November 10, 2015 / No Comments

People are fascinated by car wrecks. The more awful, the more we feel compelled to look. The same is true in marketing. Somehow, everyone loves to cringe and comment when a company has some kind of public meltdown. And like with most car wrecks, the average observer will get a lot of the facts just plain wrong.

Which brings me to the just plain wrong that was delivered in this misinformed post in CNBC.com of all places about Whole Foods’ recent tough week. The author (a journalist-turned-PR-consultant) rehashes the news we’ve already heard elsewhere – Whole Foods’ stock is down, they can’t shake the whole paycheck moniker, blah, blah, – and then opines on what he thinks Whole Foods ought to do, namely:

If Whole Foods wants to win back trust, it needs to engage in a pro-active “pricing campaign” that educates consumers on why and how they are lowering prices, while remaining true to their high quality products that made Whole Foods the pioneer in organic food.

Uhm, no. This is like telling BMW they better figure out a way to slash prices so they can compete with Toyota, because they both offer leather seats, GPS and sunroofs as an option.

Whole Foods is a premium brand that is NEVER going to win on price. NEVER. People don’t shop at Whole Foods because it has the cheapest food, they shop there because it has the best food. Period.

Best selection. Best quality. Best service. You want cheap? Go to the market next door. You want the best? Come to Whole Foods.

This marketing fundamental is called positioning.

When writing copy for company stories, positioning is job #1. You have to figure out what the company offers that makes it special to the customer and then highlight that above all else. And you don’t do it by trying to paper over a new brand onto an existing one. You do it by uncovering what makes people love the brand, and articulating that message in a powerfully emotional way.

In their classic book on the topic, Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout use the example of Volkswagen to demonstrate this principle. In a world populated by big, gas-guzzling cars, Volkswagen could never compete by pretending they could hold as much cargo as the competition. They had to own who they were and make it a virtue. Here’s how they did it:

People come to Whole Foods because they want a special experience, not because they want something cheap. Whether it’s a fine locally produced goat cheese infused with essence of lavender, or a fat bunch of parsley that smells like the earth it was pulled from just yesterday, Whole Foods is where you go when you want more than just calories, you want emotional connection. To the food. To the farmers. To the planet Earth we all share.

If I were working with Whole Foods, I’d go all in on that story. REI has its brilliant #OptOutside campaign and Whole Foods can do the same. Put a stake in the ground and say, “Nope, we’re not the cheapest, but that’s because we care. You want cheap? Go to the supermarkets that don’t care. You want to be part of a movement? Come here.

Whole Foods doesn’t have to make this position up. They already OWN it. And you only have to step into one of their stores to see the level of commitment they have to this premium position.

There are plenty of examples of great brands that cost more and are thriving: Patagonia. Apple. Nike. These brands are winning by telling great stories that justify their premium position, and Whole Foods can and should win this way too. With their 365 stores in the pipeline, Whole Foods already has the low-cost option covered. Their flagship brand deserves better than a price war, and a powerful storytelling campaign that explains why they are worth more is the sure way to avoid one.