Whole Foods’ First National Ad Campaign – Why You Should Pay Attention To It
In 1980, John Mackey, Craig Weller and Mark Skiles opened the original Whole Foods location. Thirty-four years later, Whole Foods launched its first-ever national ad campaign.
Why break the silence now? To tell us that “values matter,” broadcast the brand’s commitment to food sustainability and safety and, in doing so, win over a few million new customers.
This is not a new product initiative or rebranding effort. One can trace the company’s dedication to values back to Whole Foods’ origins as “Safer Way,” a health food store run partially out of Mackey’s apartment. Back in the days when a name like that wouldn’t immediately trigger copyright litigation, “natural” and “organic” foods and beverages appealed only to a niche market—the kind found somewhere like Austin.
But in the ensuing decades, Whole Foods widened beyond the Portland of the Southwest to several hundred locations in North America and the UK. As it expanded, the brand lost its subcultural cachet. Natural roots gave way to an association with high-cost, suburban living. When consumers think about Whole Foods, “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store” aren’t the first words that come to many minds. More likely those words are (say it with me) “Whole Paycheck.”
Jeannine D’Addario, Whole Foods’ global VP for communications, denies the recent ad campaign is intended to repair a long-standing negative perception about the store’s prices. Instead, as she told DigiDay, the goal is to aid an ambitious expansion effort and harness consumers’ growing desire to know more about their food:
As we continue to grow and enter new markets—we’re at 399 stores today, we’ll be heading onto 400 in just about a week’s time and we continue to expand towards our goal of 1,200—we wanted to introduce the brand more broadly to consumers as we continue that growth trajectory. And the other is that we’ve been telling our story both regionally and locally, and relatively quietly for 35 years, as we pioneered the natural and organic food industry. We believe that consumers are hungrier than ever before for information on where their food comes from and how it impacts their health.
There are other obvious reasons for the campaign: the company is in the process of introducing an online delivery service, which ads could support. And the new markets D’Addario mentioned aren’t just more unoccupied spaces next to yoga studios; they’re in different neighborhoods, home to different populations, in places such as Detroit and Southside Chicago.
Then there are the less obvious reasons:
- The GMO labeling wars are heating up. In Oregon and Colorado, voters narrowly thwarted 2014 referendums for mandatory GMO labels, but a similar measure in Vermont will pass into law in 2016. Meanwhile, the European Union may ban GMOs altogether. For consumers and pundits alike, “natural” is a hot topic, and any brand that can tout unprocessed, unmodified products is at an advantage.
- Grocery delivery is gaining a major foothold. As more supermarkets toy with online shopping and delivery, consumers have responded with enthusiasm. And new players such as Amazon represent significant threats to the industry’s brick and mortar veterans, not to mention…
- The industry is more crowded than ever. In the UK, supermarkets have hit a major slump, and it’s easy to see the warning signs of a similar phenomenon here. Brands are scrambling to differentiate themselves and meet diverse consumer demands. New product categories cater to an influx of dietary restrictions: gluten-free, soy-free, paleo, macrobiotic, and nonallergenic foods predominate the shelves, even at stores like Target and Walmart. But who can offer the broadest selection of specialty products? Whole Foods.
Whole Foods’ ad campaign takes these various concerns into account to redefine the brand’s value proposition. And there’s that word again: value, vague and all-encompassing.
Of course values matter—but whose values, and which values?
For years, supermarket chains have offered value to consumers in the form of low prices. Cheaper equals higher savings, an unmistakable benefit for any shopper. But unlike cost, value does not sit on a fixed axis. Cultural forces reorient values. Over time, what we consider when making a purchasing decision changes.
No longer satisfied with getting food—any food—at the lowest price imaginable, many consumers are starting to more closely evaluate their eating choices, along with the industrial and agricultural institutions involved in their production. For them food should be accessible, sure, but also delicious and nutritious and ethical and safe. For those tasked with picking up the groceries, it’s no small challenge scanning through the gamut of ingredients on every package. We have to determine what impact the product will have on our bodies, international trade, and the environment.
Cue Whole Foods—trusted purveyor of, well, whole foods—resting on the edge of a massive shift in the way we buy groceries. Suddenly the business plan becomes clear:
- Grab hold of the food revolution, assure consumers you’re connected to their values and care about their safety.
- Open up 800 new locations.
- Rake in the goodwill.
If eating healthfully does in fact trump eating economically, Whole Foods may fulfill its founder’s original vision and become the next Safe(r)way, simply because it could meet a change in values. It’s not the only food and beverage brand to do so. A vast range of companies, from Hampton Creek to Green Zebra to Pizza Hut, have recently stated their express commitment to give consumers easy access to healthier, more sustainable, higher-quality food.
Driving store visits and sales is only one function of an ad campaign. Right now, Whole Foods is playing its hand in an ultra-competitive market, generating brand awareness, courting new consumers, and—most important—crafting a story about its values. Your values, that is.