Whole Foods and Michael Pollan: Wrong to the Core

Volatile tempers in the Whole Food smackdown got even hotter last Friday when the Omnivore himself, Michael Pollan, came out swinging on behalf of embattled Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, in the face of a growing boycott against that company.

Called in reaction to Mackey's August 11, 2009 Wall Street journal editorial, which took issue with a public option for health insurance reform, the Whole Foods Market (WFM) boycott is entering its third week -- and buzzing merrily along. Its Facebook page has almost 32,000 members, and the internet is still rocking with WFM-shopper furor, union opposition, and wide-ranging political punditry.

Pollan's entrance to the debate isn't mere punditry, though. As the popular face of the locavore movement in the United States, Pollan's opinions shape and move the natural foods market in ways that even nationally read pundits can't. Just ask John Mackey who famously wrote an open letter to Pollan complaining about his company's treatment in Pollan's seminal book The Omnivore's Dilemma. He knows how important Pollan's opinion is.

But while newsworthy, Pollan's weigh-in may not be enough to mollify the opposition. In fact, in his New Majority remarks on the boycott, Pollan stumbles by falling into hyperbole, fallacy, aand by misunderstanding what's actually happening in this particular food fight. Take this for example:

Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans' health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer... So Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder.

If Whole Foods were to "disappear"? Really? Is the boycott going so well that Whole Foods is about to vanish from the face of the planet? Better buy some 365 Fig Newtons before they go!

To be fair, Mr. Pollan is simply drawing out what he says is a logical conclusion, that if the boycott has its way, Whole Foods will take a hit that it can't sustain. But, really, there's a big middle being eliminated here, namely, that this CEO would be fired long before Whole Foods ever took such a hit. Pollan may not agree with him politically, but, obviously, he can't imagine the future of Whole Foods or even the "alternative food system" without John Mackey.

Which brings us to the biggest miscalculation in Pollan's comments. He's treating this boycott as if it's actually calling for some action like the destruction of Whole Foods or the removal of Mackey as CEO. This isn't actually the case.

Indeed, this boycott isn't really a boycott at all. Boycotts are called to spur change or bring about an action. The boycott against Taco Bell, for example, was held to force the company to the bargaining table with the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, and it worked. Meanwhile, a quick glance at the boycott Facebook page or its accompanying blog and you'll see there is no stated call for action, no conditions under which the boycott would be called a success.

So if this isn't a boycott, what is it? How should Pollan, and John Mackey for that matter, approach this webbluster? To get what's happening, Pollan and Mackey need to appreciate that this debate isn't a Punch and Judy fight between health care politicos. It's an uprising of trendsetting customers.

Some shop talk. There are two key customers that drive the natural foods world, the "mid-level" and the "core" (as dubbed by noted natural foods market researchers, the Hartman Group).

If you're mid-level, you're a sensory shopper. You shop for natural foods based on taste, sight, smell, and healthfulness. You're not a "true believer" in organic certification, you don't really read labels, and you'd rather have experts explain complex issues on the fly. Conventional wisdom has long said that future growth for natural foods is married to the mid-level, because you folks make up 56% of the natural foods market.

Meanwhile, if you're core, you shop with big concepts in mind (sustainability, worker rights, environmental, and various political issues), and you want food label claims proven to you. You like research, you like information, and you like knowing how things work in the food world.

But most importantly, you core shoppers are the "trendsetters" in natural foods, according to the Hartman Group, the hum at the center of the hive. And, as "shopping experts," you attract your buddy mid-level shoppers to the stores and products that you deem worthy.

So the core is essential, and Mackey really put his foot in it, not by pissing off his liberal customers (though that dynamic is certainly at play), but by ignoring his core shoppers' reaction to his editorial.

A bit more about the core from the Hartman Group's research:

Core shoppers tend to value attributes such as the shopping experience and the authenticity of the retailer. [Emphasis mine]


The core consumer is more likely to choose to buy the product, then decide where to buy it. The "where" decision is based on a number of emotional factors, including which stores have a knowledgeable staff, which stores are perceived as having values similar to the shopper's, and which stores the shopper feels most comfortable in. [Emphasis mine]

Because he's a professor, not a grocer, Michael Pollan can be forgiven for not understanding that the boycott is actually a "core" shopper revolt.

But John Mackey? He helped build the natural foods market in the U.S. He's certainly read the Hartman Group research, and, until now, Whole Foods marketing has been definitively hip, pitching to both mid-level and core shoppers simultaneously for years: Whole Foods' health and wellness initiatives appeal to the midlevel, while their Whole Trade program is a perfect example of marketing to the core (Fair Trade is an almost exclusively "core" value).

Mackey knows Whole Foods needs the core for street cred, and that the core demands authenticity and integrity from its chosen stores. Mackey's competitors know this, too. Wal-mart seeks cred from the core by claiming to be a sustainable business, and Dole, Starbucks and Procter & Gamble's Millstone coffee are all going after the core too (via Fair Trade certification with Transfair). There's been a fight to attract trendsetting customers for half a decade now, and Mackey just broke trust with his core in a big loud fashion.

Worse, Mackey trying to explain it away, saying that Wall Street Journal headline writers betrayed him by using the term "Obamacare," won't do the trick. Neither will celebrity endorsements, even if they come from figures as respected by the core as Michael Pollan.

It will be interesting to see if the "boycott" begins to lose steam, but I don't think Pollan's political cover is going to work. After all, this isn't any of his business -- literally. It's Mackey's to lose or regain, not Pollan's to defend. I'm afraid these "boycotting" shoppers are going to remain angry, skeptical, distrustful, and wary until Mackey addresses his editorial with an apology that doesn't insult the core's intelligence.