When is a brand promise broken? Who decides? Will Whole Foods soon find out? TELL US WHAT YOU THINK.

Posted by on May 9, 2011

Is a brand promise broken when customers feel it is, even if the facts don’t support their feelings? A recent case involving Whole Foods Markets may soon test this question.

A few weeks ago a Florida judge decided to allow a lawsuit to proceed against Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFMI). The suit alleges that the company violated Florida’s deceptive trade practices law by knowingly selling frozen vegetables grown by prisoners on a Chinese farm irrigated from a polluted river, and owned by the Chinese government. The produce was allegedly certified as organic by another government-owned company, bringing the certification into question. The suit was filed on behalf of the Southeast Consumer Alliance Inc.

Whether the suit has any merit is not the point of this article since we have no knowledge about the facts. What interests us are the potentially risky optics of WFMI’s decision to source from China – infamous for food and other products intentionally adulterated with harmful substances by the manufacturers – when WFMI’s brand promise connotes quality, purity, ethics and sustainability.

When the story of the Chinese vegetables first broke in 2008, WFMI responded in a blog written by Joe Dickson, the company’s Organic Certification Coordinator, defending WFMI’s decision to source vegetables in China. Dickson’s blog states that their Chinese produce was subject to the same strict USDA requirements as vegetables grown in the USA.

For background, here’s an excerpt from Whole Foods’ website:

Whole Foods — We search for the highest quality, least processed, most flavorful and natural foods possible because we believe that food in its purest state — unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings and preservatives — is the best tasting and most nutritious food there is.

Whole People — Our people are our company. They are passionate about healthy food and a healthy planet. They take full advantage of our decentralized, self-directed team culture and create a respectful workplace where people are treated fairly and are highly motivated to succeed.

Whole Planet — We are committed to helping take care of the world around us, and our active support of organic farming and sustainable agriculture helps protect our planet. And while we assist our global neighbors through our Whole Planet Foundation’s micro-lending operations, we also step out the back door of each of our stores to support food banks, sponsor neighborhood events and donate to local non-profit groups.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume WFMI has ensured that the food sourced from China is safe and deserves to bear the “USDA certified Organic” label. But the facts may not matter –  perhaps a brand promise is broken whenever customers say it is.

We’re interested in your input on these two questions:

  1. If you were the CEO of Whole Foods Markets, would you have been willing to source vegetables from China given the potential conflict with the company’s pristine value proposition?
  2. Has this action seriously endangered Whole Foods’ brand promise?

What’s your opinion? Please have your say in the comments section below.

Copyright 2011 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc.