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Whole Foods: Do This, Not That

Posted by: Bill Chidley on March 18, 2013

Whole Foods is said to be planning a health resort near its Austin Texas headquarters. If you just read that sentence and didn’t immediately say “why?” to yourself, then Whole Foods just passed the test as a lifestyle brand.

Personally, I know that I didn’t ask why when I saw the news. I thought it seemed perfectly logical, even exciting. I had a similar response to the news of an Ikea Hotel.

So how does a brand get to this rarified place where they can stretch into a business that would seem illogical or foolish for competitors? For companies who aspire to be lifestyle brands, it is the power of what you don’t do that unleashes the power of what you can do.

Lifestyle brands march to a different drummer. They have a clear and distinct point of view, are outspoken, and inherently polarizing. For many brands this polarizing affect is very risky, but for brands seeking to be disruptive in mature categories or sectors, it can be the path to huge success and bear great dividends. Whole Foods is a textbook case.

When brands have a clear, distinct point of view it forces choices that may forfeit short term gain for long term benefit. It is a conscious decision to invest in the brand. The values of the brand permeate the behavior of the organization, the customer experience and, ultimately, public opinion. The result is a very powerful appeal to a much smaller audience.

John Mackey

Often delivering on an unarticulated need, these lifestyle brands thrive on creating an emotional connection based on shared values and beliefs. They become a part of how their customers define themselves and enrich their lives.

In the 1990s the fast food concept from southern California called Baja Fresh had a simple white interior design with this message on the wall: “No can openers. No microwaves.” This was a brilliantly simple message about their values and iconoclastic attitude in a market where competitors like were synonymous with “fast food.”

What they didn’t do defined them and made their product more desirable and valuable to those with fast food anxiety. There is an element of “resisting temptation” that makes the idea of abstention a powerful communication platform and creates respect for a brand.

So when Whole Foods rejects all but organic produce and meat, and doesn’t carry mainstream products from brand giants because they are antithetical to their point of view on health, nutrition and supply chain, it defines them. Competitors can introduce organic sections and add natural food brands to their assortments, but it is seen as mere opportunism with Whole Food brand loyalists.

In the end a Whole Foods health resort may fail because of location or execution, but not because of brand. In fact there was a spa, called ReFresh - The Everyday Spa at Whole Foods Market, which had been located above a Whole Foods store in Dallas and is now closed.

The idea of Whole Foods' impassioned customers accepting and possibly embracing the brand offering a health resort experience is legitimate because of how they have consciously edited what their brand does, and what it does not. Whole Foods stands for making great choices in food that promote a healthy lifestyle. A health resort stands to be a way to purely deliver that experience.

Bill Chidley is SVP, Executive Consultant, Interbrand Design Forum.

Whole Foods is ranked #34 among US retail brands in Interbrand's newly released Best Retail Brands 2013 report. To read the entire global report and learn more about our methodology, please visit bestretailbrands.com.

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