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  Whole Foods
Whole Foods Market
Socially Organic
by Mark J. Miller
June 25, 2010

Brandchannel’s weekly Digital Watch feature takes a deeper look at brands’ digital strategy. Our latest case study, Whole Foods, aims to be as wholesome, open and transparent on the Web as it must be in its retail markets, where customers demand not only top-quality food, but detailed information and frank advice in order to make informed choices.

INTRO Whole Foods Market, to some, is a provisions paradise stuffed with organic or minimally treated foods free of hydrogenated fats, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives, among other plenty of other things. That kind of dedication to unblemished food can be difficult to find in the processed-food wasteland that exists in the aisles of most American grocery stores.

It’s that kind of dedication that led Whole Foods to try and reach and engage its consumers in any way possible. When it first started a Twitter account, the company noticed that, like its stores, many different audiences were asking many different things of the Twitter account, whether about cheese or events happening in a particular store.

SOCIAL MEDIA For that reason, Whole Foods, which has nearly 1.8 million Twitter followers, encouraged each of its more than 280 stores to create their own Twitter and Facebook accounts in order to engage more effectively with their customers. The company also took larger issues such as cheese or wine and created separate Twitter accounts for those areas so that the many Whole Foods customers who are interested in such things could engage directly on that. Now Whole Foods has more than 150 corporate Twitter accounts on a variety of topics and many of its stores have started their own as well.

From its use of Twitter, Whole Foods dived deeply into the social-media pool, creating a corporate Facebook page, which has more than 280,000 people who “like” it, as well as a Flickr account so people can share any Whole Foods images they happen to have lying around. In addition, employees respond to customers on the social-support site Get Satisfaction as well.

Bill Tolany, head of integrated media for Whole Foods, recently told the attendees of the Wisdom 2.0 conference that Whole Foods consciously decided that it wasn’t interested in creating a new online identity when it got started in social media. “The key for us was to be ourselves as we decided we wanted to be more involved in social media,” he said. “We wanted to amplify our presence and have more connections with our customers.”

Whole Foods WEBSITE Amplify they did. Once Whole Foods began to segment its message, more success was realized. “We’re a very decentralized company so we had to take that into account,’ he said. So the Whole Foods website hits topics that may interest the overall Whole Foods target audience while social media takes care of those smaller slices of the minimally treated rutabaga pie. The site features such things as recipes, explanations of the corporate values, health tips, lists of products, nutrition information, and, of course, a blog.

Whole Foods has come a long way since it opened in 1978 as SaferWay, after now CEO-founder (and college dropout) John Mackey and his girlfriend borrowed $45,000 to open a health-food store. The pair were soon evicted from their residence and then holed up in the store, taking showers with a hose from the dishwasher. You won’t find that kind of crunch living going on in any Whole Foods Market these days. (Though Mackey did show he was an early believer in social media when he got into trouble with the SEC for posting positive messages on Yahoo!’s financial pages about Whole Foods under a pseudonym, rahodeb.)

These days, Whole Foods is considered one of the most transparent and socially responsible corporations in America, which is reflected on its website. The site is also highly engaging with its huge collection of videos. Tolany told the conference attendees that the company thought many of its products and vendors had interesting stories to tell and the videos provided a way of sharing those, with visits to farms and test kitchens to discuss everything from freshly caught halibut to olives.

The site also features audio podcasts of a series called Whole Body with such titles as “Summer Fun, Not Sore Muscles” and “Preparing for Healthy Pregnancy.” This helps extend the Whole Foods brand further into lifestyle choices.

One thing Tolany suggested that helped make its social media work was to have fun with it. For its millionth Twitter follower, Whole Foods awarded a million grains (about 5 lbs.) of quinoa (and a $50 gift card). Another day, one of the company’s blogs ran a contest that would award a case of peanut butter to the most interesting response as to what people might do with it.

The company also completely changed the front of its site on April Fool’s Day to advertise faux Whole Foods action figures that both poked fun at the company while also engaging the end consumers with links to real information on pertinent subjects. As a result, it received more hits than ever before barring a Thanksgiving weekend.

Another thing Tolany stressed was that Whole Foods makes sure to explain directly to consumers the parameters it was working in. For example, on the company’s corporate Twitter page, it clearly tells the end user that it will only be sending its “fresh organic tweets) from Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time.

Tolany says the company also encourages all the company social-media accounts be labeled as being from Whole Foods rather than from an individual in order to allow employees to freely express themselves on their own accounts as well as to not lose large chunks of interested, engaged consumers every time a marketing person takes a new job somewhere else.

What? Leave Whole Foods? It happens, of course, but it appears that the company is going out of its way to give autonomy to its employees in the social-media world, just as it gives each store a certain amount of freedom to do whatever they want. In the social-media world, that kind of freedom has given Whole Foods the ability to have a wide variety of one-to-one conversations with a wide variety of consumers. What could be better for any brand?


Mark J. Miller writes a daily sports column for Yahoo! Sports and is a contributing writer to Crain's BtoB's Media Business magazine. His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, ESPN, The Washington Post,, I.D., and Glamour, among others.

*Due to the constantly changing environment of websites, some reviews may no longer reflect the current website for this brand.
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