Brandwashed at Whole Foods

Discussion
Oct 14, 2011
Tom Ryan

Martin Lindstrom’s new book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, explores in part how supermarkets persuade consumers to spend more than they intend to on an average shopping trip. But he particularly fixates on Whole Foods.

“Without a shadow of doubt, Whole Foods leads the pack in consumer priming,” the best-selling author of Buyulogy wrote in an article he penned for Fast Company, referring to overall retailers.

In particular, he focused on “symbolics” — or unconscious suggestions — in the store experience that call out the “freshness” of offerings. The following are a few examples he found:

Fresh-cut flowers: Stacks of flowers greet shoppers as they enter a Whole Foods and they sit among “the freshest, most perishable objects on earth.” With the flowers priming shoppers to think of freshness, “we continue to carry that association, albeit subconsciously, with us as we shop.”

Chalk boards: Mimicking the tradition of European marketplaces, chalk boards show prices of flowers, fruits and vegetables. He writes in another article he penned for The Wall Street Journal, “It’s as if the farmer or grower had unloaded his produce (chalk and slate boards in hand), then hopped back in his flatbed truck and motored back to the country” with the chalk board suggesting that prices change daily like a local market. But, he asserts, most of the produce was flown in days ago with prices set by headquarters.

Ice/mistiness: Although items such as hummus and cucumbers don’t need to be covered in chipped ice, Whole Foods does it to convey the sense of “freshness and purity.” In the same vein, supermarkets overall tend to sprinkle select vegetables with water. The author writes in the Journal, “Like ice displays, those drops serve as a symbol, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity.”

Pictures of fruit: Mr. Lindstrom points to how grocers plaster their juice containers with as many pictures of fresh fruit as they can in order to create the sense that it’s coming off the vine, even though it tends to come from concentrate and is flown in from overseas.

Cardboard boxes: Even though produce can be easily placed in bins, Mr. Lindstrom attests in Fast Company that Whole Foods uses cardboard boxes “for that rustic, aw-shucks touch. In other words, it’s a symbolic to reinforce the idea of old-time simplicity.”

He concludes in Fast Company: “So the next time you happen to grab your wallet to go shopping, don’t be fooled: retailers for better or for worse, are the masters of seduction and priming — brandwashing us to believe in perception rather than reality.”

Discussion Questions: Is “brandwashing” much ado about very little? Which of the “symbolics” — or unconscious suggestions — mentioned in the article do you think are most successful in motivating consumers to spend? What retailers do you think are most successful in creating environments where consumers want to spend?

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14 Comments on "Brandwashed at Whole Foods"


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Ronnie Perchik
Guest
Ronnie Perchik
9 years 7 months ago

Every brand has to sell their message in a potent enough way to get consumers to listen up. But every marketer’s goal should be to do this in a way that’s based on truth.

This piece points out all of the ways Whole Foods pushes this “fresh” message, but doesn’t speak to whether the products they sell are actually lower quality. Whole Foods carries mainly organic brands and fresh, prepared (and might I add delicious!) foods, and so their retail stores are designed to follow suit. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

“Brandwashing,” at least in the case of Whole Foods, is far too strong a word.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

This is just asinine. And he gets paid for writing this paranoid drivel? What would he have shoppers do, now that he has armed them with this “information?” What would he have stores do? Put all the food items in a heap on the floor? What’s actually happened here is that he’s manipulated people into buying a useless book with the promise of some sort of “inside information.” And Wired and the Wall Street Journal follow along as patsies. Incredible.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

…and there are images of naked women in the ice cubes of my drink at the bar, which is why I’m drinking more. Gee, does this remind anyone else of Subliminal Seduction? Hidden Persuaders?

We call this marketing — Whole Foods is creating an image and the consumer is paying for that image when they shop there. If I think my food tastes fresher, and I want to pay more for that taste, what’s wrong with that? What they are doing is no different from the fashion industry or the automotive industry. You can get clothes much cheaper at Target than at Nieman-Marcus and a Ford Focus will get you to work in rush hour just as fast as a BMW for a third the cost. Not every purchase is meant to be economically rational.

Once again, Martin Lindstrom’s self-promotion machine is hard at work.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
9 years 7 months ago

Basically this guy is saying that retailing is bad. All these steps he’s mentioned do work in getting the customer into the buying mode. It’s all about positive reinforcement. As soon as the customer enters the door, you want to convey the aura of freshness (in grocery’s case) or cleanliness or service or savings (i.e. Walmart’s opening run at the entrance). At the store level, it really becomes a psychological game and the more positives you bombard a customer with, the larger the basket. Full color pics, chalkboards, fresh flowers, misting, I love it all. It’s part of the first 500 feet phase the customer walks through. Merchants can determine the sale and experience in that first 500 feet.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

“Brandwashing” is probably very interesting and revealing to everyday people but there is nothing new here and for anyone that makes a living in the consumer goods or retail industry; please join me with one big YAWN.

Kevin Graff
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Mr Lindstrom isn’t going to find much ‘love’ in the forum of retailers. I would echo Warren’s points above. It’s a ridiculous book to write, and even more ridiculous for the media to pick up on it. What’s next? His expose on how car manufacturers put in big engines to make the car go faster?

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
9 years 7 months ago

What’s wrong with consumers “feeling” that they are buying freshly picked fruits and vegetables, they are going to spend their money anyway, why not make it an enjoyable experience?

Would Mr. Lindstrom prefer pictures of slaughter houses or sweaty field workers plastered on the displays in order to more accurately convey to the consumer the reality of their products’ origins?

I think that Mr. Lindstrom should take on the greeting card industry next and help us better understand how these sneaky companies such as Hallmark produce these wonderful cards that when purchased prove to the recipient what a very caring person you are for sending them a birthday card filled with beautiful sentiments from the heart. Bah, Humbug would say Mr. Lindstrom; the cold hard fact is that these prefabricated sappy sentiments were purchased for a buck at the Quickstop and don’t really reflect any effort on your part at all.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

As several have pointed out before me, I regard all of this as marketing and good marketing at that. FYI — we are not Whole Foods customers, but that mean I can’t admire their approach.

Nothing in the article (won’t be buying the book) indicates that Whole Foods is doing anything deceptive or illegal. It is simply displaying its foods in a manner that appeals to its target audience.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

These aren’t tricks — they’re entirely predictable and effective marketing tools, and customers love them. We’ve come a long way from the early days of generics, when you could buy a cheapie can of corn with a black and white label. Let us smell the flowers, taste the cheese cubes, and revel in the iced salmon.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
9 years 7 months ago

What motivates consumers to spend most is value. If any of the merchandising/marketing tactics increases the value of an item, sales will increase. For gosh sakes, this has been retail’s reason for being for 1000 years. Does anyone with any sense need Martin Lindstrom to point this out? I look forward to buying his book when it becomes available in my dollar store – shouldn’t have to wait long!

Larry Negrich
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Thank goodness someone has finally alerted consumers of these manipulative marketing practices. I would have never thought that the use of ice, mist, chalk, and fresh-cut flowers was so wrong. True story: I recently bought a muffin in a store based on the great scent of fresh-baked goods in the air. But now I realize that I must have been manipulated by the retailer who through the use of baking in on-site ovens put fresh-baked muffin scent into the air. Wow, they tricked me into buying and eating one of the best muffins I ever had.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

“Without a shadow of doubt”…suffice it to say anything bearing this phrase will have either: whole umbras of doubt, or observations so obvious they needn’t be stated. I’m not sure which is the case here, because I intend to follow Mr. Lindstrom’s advice to avoid buying things I don’t want or need (starting with his book).

Herb Sorensen
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
I’m always uncomfortable agreeing with a crowd, thinking, what am I missing? In this case, nothing. Maybe some retailers who have been behind the door might pick up a tip or two here. This goes to a mindset that shoppers want to spend as little as possible in the store. Unfortunately, there is a strong current of this attitude permeating the industry. Shoppers come into the store because they want and need things. It is why retailing is at the cutting edge of social evolution, always has been and always will be. Shoppers do not benefit from helping them not to buy!!! I had one “consumer reporter” ask me how shoppers could spend less in the store. I told them it is really quite simple: keep a thumb screw in your purse, and put it on every time you go into a store. And then turn the screw till the pain is about all you can bear, and then when you leave, take off the thumb screw. You really WILL spend the absolute minimum in… Read more »
Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
9 years 7 months ago

Brandwashing seems directed to elicit consumer response — and little else.

There is nothing new about using symbols and visual cues to engage shoppers. We respond to freshness cues by entering the perishables, anchored by the fresh flowers. Most retailers have shoppers enter through this path, hardly just Whole Foods. It sets up a different experience, than say club stores, where the visuals suggest good value for members — is this less symbolic, and thus “less manipulative” for shoppers? Hardly — just a different approach to reaching shoppers in the aisle.

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