Whole Foods Boss Does a Ratner
Whole Foods Markets claims to be the world’s leader in natural and organic foods. A look at their website shows a family, planet, people-friendly business extolling the benefits of their products and their values in a confident, engaging way. So far, so good – the sort of business paragon we like to use as examples to our clients.
But CEO John Mackey seems to have blown a hole in the ship below the waterline. An op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal attacked President Obama’s healthcare plans and proposed a free-market alternative that some have described as ‘Darwinian’. The reaction has been brutal – a Facebook group calling for a boycott of Whole Foods has over 19,000 members as of this morning and the story is all across the popular press. The last time we saw something like this was when UK highstreet jeweller Gerard Ratner brought down his business by joking in a speech that the company’s performance was “not bad for selling crap”.
Top management guru Tom Peter has commented that it would be a shame if CEOs couldn’t give personal opinions in the future, but I think he his missing the point. The Whole Foods brand makes a big fuss over its progressive values and their core customer base is exactly the sort of person who would support Obama’s plans. I can’t see why the WSJ would have bothered publishing the article if Mackey wasn’t CEO of Whole Foods. The gulf between the values being projected to those customers (we understand and care for you and your family) and the values expoused in the article (I think you’re a bunch of loony socialists) makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the pavement. Result – potentially fatal brand damage, and all for what?
So, lessons to be learnt:
– customers really don’t like feeling that they’ve been swizzed
– the press and the blogosphere thrive on perceived hypocrisy
– if you are going to expouse values, it’s helpful if you really believe in them yourself
– if there is a gap between your personal values and your corporate values, don’t use the business as a platform to promote the former (is that not really obvious?)