Is Whole Foods Brandwashing Us?

whole foodsWhat’s with all of the ice?

The question bothered me after a recent trip to Whole Foods Market, an upscale market near my home. The container of hummus I bought hadn’t been refrigerated; it was displayed in a large barrel of ice.

In fact, lots of other food and drinks items were stored in ice barrels all around the store. The items needed to be kept cold but it certainly would have used less space if they had been placed on normal cooled shelves. What was Whole Foods thinking?

I found a plausible – and fascinating – answer in a Fast Company article entitled “How Whole Foods Primes You To Shop”. The author suggests that ice is a symbol of freshness; it provides the unconscious suggestion what you’re looking at is ready-made or straight from the farm. It doesn’t matter whether the ice is strictly needed as long as it reinforces Whole Foods’ brand promise.

Using ice to denote freshness is only a more sophisticated version of a subliminal tactic supermarkets have been using for years:

…supermarkets have been sprinkling vegetables with regular drops of water – a trend that began in Denmark. Why? Like ice displays, those sprinkled drops serve as a symbol, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. Ironically, that same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise. So much for perception versus reality.

Lindstrom claims that Whole Foods is a master at the art of consumer seduction. Most grocery stores have non-perishable items at their entrances: cash registers, snacks, and movie rentals. In contrast, Whole Foods places fresh flowers at the front entrances to prime us into thinking of freshness from the moment we enter the store. We carry that subliminal message around with us for the rest of our visit.

This brand promise is reinforced everywhere in the store, from the fruit spilling out of cardboard boxes to the hand-drawn prices in chalk on slate. The boxes and slate evoke the image of a traditional outdoor European market.

It’s as if the farmer pulled up in front of Whole Foods just this morning, unloaded his produce, then hopped back in his flatbed truck to drive back upstate to his country farm.

The chalk scrawl also suggests the prices are set locally and change daily depending on supply. In fact, the prices are fixed at the Texas corporate headquarters and the signs are mass-produced in a factory. Even the multiple randomly-stacked boxes are actually a single-sided display case designed to look like individual boxes.

News flash: Whole Foods isn’t a country store. We’ve been Brandwashed.

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8 Responses to Is Whole Foods Brandwashing Us?

  1. Anonymous November 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you for inspiration. 🙂
    It is true the “visual seduction ” is well-designed brand element, same as “color psycology ” being used in many marketing approches.


  2. ken demma November 7, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Reading this post did cause me to think about my personal experience with whole foods and I found the same tactics to be true…across the country here in Boston.

    …and while I feel a bit duped by these tactics, i can see the efficacy of doing so—maybe in a less “dishonest” way—in our busiensses.

    There is something to be said about creating the context and environment that are part of a positive brand and service experience for a customer, and demonstrating the core values or benefits of our business…and it is this last point where I believe whole foods moves from context and experience to deceptiveness…as they are providing a false impression of freshness, though i can appreciate providing an experience that makes a shopper feel good about the experience they are having and their meeting their needs (mostly unconscious) about freshness and “goodness” in their nurturing their bodies and families.

    The best of us will be able to provide the experience that is supportive of the brand pronciples and values…but also true, genuine and authentic.

    Great post—thanks!

  3. Sahile Chawla November 14, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Great post indeed. Growing up in India I’ve actually been fortunate enough to have the experience of buying produce regularly straight from the farmers. On such errands one trick of the trait that my Mom would always make sure I learnt was NEVER to buy stuff from farmers that were sprinkling water on their vegetables. It was a clear sign that his stuff is not as fresh as it seems and would probably not last as long…. although when I moved to the US it was amazing to see, just as you described here, every grocery store purposefully sprinkling their produce.

    Another thing that fascinates me is that you walk past the fruit section at a Publix or Whole Foods and you would not even smell a thing, whereas if you were shopping at a farmers market in India you would be drawn to the fruit by it’s smell. An old adage “if it doesn’t smell like leather it probably isn’t” seems fit here. Learned that from my Dad who used to be in the leather garments business, but I digress.


  4. Robert E November 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    The art of seduction is not limited to retail and the true trick is never allowing the seduced to feel that they have been.

  5. Gabriel November 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    I encourage everyone to voice their opinions , but I do find myself wishing that before turning said opinion into a book that they do thorough research. I work at a Whole Foods. We do put products out on ice…. We have the same products displayed on refrigerated shelves, but an ice bucket is smaller, portable and is thousands of dollars cheaper than another refrigeration unit. We also employ a full time graphic artist who does our chalkboards. They are in chalk marker so they do not get wiped off too easily, but they are drawn in house. All Grocery stores use marketing techniques, it is a business. I have a hard time seeing that marketing and displaying something of good quality nicely is brainwashing though.

    • Jonathan November 19, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

      Blogs lilke mine are most useful when they generate comments, maybe even a little debate. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Whole Foods was bad for what they were doing; the spirit of the post was more grudging admiration for very good marketing. (I’m in the profession after all.) Also, I didn’t say brainwashing — brand washing is the name of a book.

      Finally, I should point out that I shop at Whole Foods regularly.

  6. raminbagheri July 15, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    In my recent visits at Wholefoods, I realized, that cashiers start a casual conversation (such a cooking tips) with you about their (pretended) personal experiences about something related what you have in your basket. And each time they recommended us to try another brands. At the second time my wife was about to change her mind and get the other recommended item from the shelf. I am still not sure, if this that a new way of marketing.

    What I don’t feel good to get doubt about my choice of items, I am purchasing, especially while I am paying.

  7. Bilal Jaffery (@BilalJaffery) July 16, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    Good post Just like the ‘healthier chips’ packaging is matte, not glassy. Neuromarketing at its best.

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