WTF at Whole Foods (doing the cultural math)

Whole foods What was he thinking?

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, criticized Obama's approach to health care,  and called for a private sector approach.

Let's do the cultural math and establish how Mackey damaged the brand and took money out of share holder's pockets.

1) Whole Foods is part of a larger food revolution.

2) the food revolution is part of a larger cultural revolution/social movement.

3) this revolution seeks a "kinder, gentler" universe in which the individual is less exposed to randomness and cruelty.

4) health care reform is designed to make the world less random and cruel.  That's what Obama's reforms are for. 

5) he who attacks this health reform movement attacks the "kinder, gentler" proposition.

5) he who attacks the "kinder, gentler" proposition attacks the cultural revolution/social movement.

6) he who attacks the cultural revolution/social movement attacks the food revolution.

7) he who attacks the food revolution attacks Whole Foods.

And so it follows that when Mackey offered his opinions, he inflicted damage on the brand and the share holder.  If only he had a Chief Culture Officer. 


Mackey, John.  2009.  Op Ed Essay.  Wall Street Journal.  Aug. 12.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  New York: Basic Books.  Available for preorder here.

Palmer, Alex.  Whole Foods Attempts to Quell Boycott Cries.  BrandWeek.  Aug. 24.  here.

22 thoughts on “WTF at Whole Foods (doing the cultural math)

  1. Joshua

    Leaving aside the issue of whether Mackey might sincerely believe that the proposed health care reform bills will actually result in a more random and cruel world (for instance by driving up the federal deficit to the point where there will have to be severe rationing or by stifling medical innovation), is he really damaging share-holder value when the shares go up after his editorial, and close at what appears to be a high for the past year?

  2. REK

    Grant – Hmm ….

    4) health care reform is designed to make the world less random and cruel.

    So, Mackey offers how Whole Foods’ model as a way to make the world “less random and cruel” (or, as some of us might prefer: to maximize shareholder value … which, given stock performance is doing quite nicely, thank you).

    I’m likely missing the obvious, but how is outlining a proven path for making the world “less random and cruel” an attack? Or is the “cultural misstep” that Mackey offered a private sector solution?

  3. mark brady

    Hard to be surprised in some ways. The man shot himself in the foot sockpuppeting on Yahoo Finance message boards and had the SEC all over him. I think Mackey is proof that brandspaces exist outside of the products/orgs that luck into them, not to mention he’s a fine illustration of the odd venn diagram that is Libertarian/Progressive ideas.

  4. srp

    Grant’s analysis is one that I would have presented to Mackey–it is the correct first-order take–but I still would not have advised him to keep quiet. Rather, I would have told him to prepare himself for the onslaught to come and I would have asked to see any survey data they had to check if a large percentage of their customers actually hold the stereotypical “Whole Foods” political values. Paradoxically, keeping his mouth shut on a public policy issue where he clearly feels he has something to contribute is even more against the “kinder, gentler” ethos than his actual course of action.

    Also, there may well be a lot of people who wouldn’t shop WF before because they didn’t want to associate with its hippy-dippy-arugula-yuppie image who might now feel more comfortable about shopping there.

  5. Michelle

    I have often been puzzled by WF’s rep as a great place to work given that there health ‘insurance’ or policies seem to be very market-based (essentially, a charge card with a balance to pay for out of pocket expenses), at least according to my friend who has worked there >25 years.

  6. Dan

    I don’t know if “attack” is the best word to use. Mackey simply presented an alternative path for the healthcare debate. His Op-ed just says: Hey, this works for us, maybe it could work on a larger scale. And it has worked, on a large, viable & sustainable scale. Is the correct response to Mackey presenting a option to try & ruin his company & make his colleagues & workers suffer? Perhaps everyone should re-read what Mackey said & see it for what it is: a reasonable suggestion that deserves our consideration (just like all reasonable suggestions do)

  7. j

    So he should just not voice his beliefs if he feels they will harm those who are part of the “cultural revolution/social movement” and disagrees with a certain political party right? #BlogFail

  8. Connie Amidei

    REK, you’re missing alot. This is an informational article on Mackey’s obvious misstep, but as the majority of well informed progressives know, it has affected the bottom line for whole foods and thousands of us are joining a growing boycott of WF. Do a little research real time, and come back to the discussion. In the meantime, the personal is always the political. Mackey has sided with our corporate enemies and not supporting our visionary leader’s agenda, not ok. It hurts us and we will no longer herd into his business and support his out of touch lifestyle.

    Connie Amidei

  9. Sebastian Franck

    A little background reading to put Mackey’s opinions into a broader perspective: Mackey and Friedman debates the social responsibilities of business: Note how Mackey and Milton Friedman are unanimous about the fundamentals – but not about the socrep issue. Mackey, it seems, is much more of a visionary, a culture shaper, not just a culture interpreter as the rest of us.

  10. Jason

    Connie Amidei, you are the one who should do some research, Whole Foods stock is up and that boycott is a joke. There is “Facebook boycotting” (click a button, join a cause) and there is real boycotting. Neither of which in this case have done much of anything to Whole Foods but give them a bit of press.

    Grant, Mackey didn’t attack anything, he proposed an alternative. It’s the ideologue’s like Connie who equate any disagreement with Obama as an “attack” in a war (“corporate enemies,” says Connie). People on both sides don’t want a discussion, they want a fight.

    That is too bad as we’ll all end up worse off than before.

    Oh, the irony of the Connie’s of the world boycotting a business that does all the right things according to their beliefs but the minute something is said against the party line, hell hath no fury!

  11. Jason

    Forgot to ask,

    Connie and friends, since Walmart supports government health care reform that includes employer healthcare mandates, does this mean you now shop at Walmart while on boycott?

    Talk about getting twisted in knots.

  12. Grant McCracken

    Jason, thanks for an excellent comment, just to clarify, I didn’t mean actually to take a position in this post, I was, as an anthropologist and a marketer, merely channeling what I thought the “kinder, gentler” position was and how Mackey had managed to antagonize it To the extent that this constituency is a big one for Whole Foods (and this is an empirical question), I think his remarks were ill advised. And again I say this as an anthropologist and a marketer. My real opinions about Mackey and his op-ed are whatever they are. I wasn’t expressing them here. Thanks again for a great comment. Best, Grant

  13. Michael Powell

    I have to wonder though if John Mackey isn’t perhaps attuned to culture better than we might think, but a cultural logic that is simply not part of the gentler, kinder Obama vision. Instead, I think the libertarian way is increasingly appealing to young adults coming of age, moving away from liberal ideals, but feeling alienated by the Christian fundamentalism, xenophobia and general “stupidity” (to use Bill Maher’s term) of the Republican party and especially its leadership. WFM doesn’t appeal to everyone and will never need to. They need to appeal to wealthy young and middle age adults who don’t want to be ostentatious about their wealth, are very concerned with their personal bodily discipline — as well as idealistic younger people who work for WFM and are deeply passionate about food ethics. It’s a strange balance that follows no rational logic. It only works as a cultural logic.

    Having said all that, perhaps Grant could be right. But only time will tell. My sense is that Mackey’s libertarian route could actually work. Stranger things have happened. After all, Ron Paul won more votes in the San Francisco Bay area in the election than almost anywhere else, and those votes came from a lot of idealistic young people, as well as many curious former Republicans.

  14. Joshua H.

    It would be interesting to look at this op-ed piece without thinking of Mackey as the variable. What if he represents a subculture that is skeptical of a government sanctioned foodstuffs, and by extension, even a benevolent government healthcare program. If that is the case, then perhaps Obama is the one outside of the movement participated in by whole foods.

    It would be interesting to see how employees of WF feel Mackey has done regarding their healthcare.

  15. Virginia Postrel

    Why assume that Mackey didn’t anticipate the reaction? Maybe he was counting on the man-bites-dog story to draw attention to his health-care message (not that anyone who actually knows about Mackey would be surprised to hear he has libertarian views on health care).

  16. Sebastian Franck

    I personally know a lot of libertarian-leaning people who’d buy at WF if we lived in the US. This constituency – and I like to believe it is a growing one – don’t think government coercion is kinder and gentler.

    Grant, what I object to in your analysis is that very intermediary “kinder and gentler” that you see as a moniker for a movement towards more state regulation and direction. It is inherently value laden. But so it is with all anthropological analysis, isn’t it? Interpretation is nothing without a pre-set horizon of value and meaning.

    I think, maybe “individuality” would work better? Buying at wholefood to many is an expression of their individuality? It is not so much a question of general ethics as it is about personal ethos. And to be able to form your own (culturally mediated) ethos, you want to be as free from coercive rules and repressions as possible. I think this is what WF and John Mackey embodies. Not eco-collectivism.

    That this very individuality is so heavily socially infested, is another issue …

  17. Michael Strong

    Michael Powell’s comment is spot on:

    “My sense is that Mackey’s libertarian route could actually work.”

    John and I believe that the younger generation is mostly idealistic and entrepreneurial; although they don’t usually think of themselves as “libertarian,” and are often still taught to hate the free enterprise system in college, they don’t really believe in government as a solution either. The old socialistic left, now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, control academia and mainstream media, but they are dying. The health care issue was a provocative one, to be sure, but other than that young people are very interested in entrepreneurial solutions to world problems, thus our book, “Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems.” Note that Obama supports charter schools, as do most parents of young children, and that he has described himself as a U. of Chicago Democrat, deliberately nodding respectfully towards Milton Friedman, something a Michael Moore or a Ted Kennedy would never have done.

  18. Connie Amidei

    Thanks for the comments and personal attack Jason. I do miss shopping at WF (as thousands of my friends have said as well) The issue at hand is health care reform and supporting the POTUS, period. Without a public option, there is absolutely no incentive for greedy, out of control insurance and pharmaceutical companies to offer fair competitive costs. Period…end of story. We’re all politically savvy and we all realize the motivation in your shock and awe reaction. And thanks to Grant for weighing in, thought he’d be too busy but I see he is an important part of the strategy. Again, you are either for us (those who want true reform) or against us (those who think they know better than the powerful team at the top promoting health care for all, including Obama) There is no middle ground on this one guys. BTW Jason, the “hell hath no fury” comment gave you away, what a dumb ass lol. Additionally, the fact the the teabaggers are doing a reverse boycott and now supporting WF is both telling and laughable. Strange bedfellows, maybe not. The gig is up boys, the visceral misogyny shown has now made you transparent and words will no longer help you. I will step up the boycott.

    Peace and Love

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