Whole Foods CEO's opinion piece poses risk to company's image

An online battle between Whole Foods' customer base and CEO John Mackey's stance on healthcare reform may have long-term effects on the company's reputation.

An online battle between the Whole Foods' customer base and CEO John Mackey's stance on healthcare reform may have long-term effects on the company's reputation.

On August 11, Mackey published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal called “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare,” which states that he does not support the current format of healthcare reform.

The reaction from the company's liberal base was immediate with customers calling for a boycott and news reports focusing on the number of bloggers and online commentators who said they would stop shopping at Whole Foods.

“I think it's always dangerous when a CEO weighs into a debate as emotional as healthcare,” says Jason Schechter, MD of Burson-Marsteller's corporate practice. “It's even more dangerous when a CEO directly contradicts the viewpoint of its core customer base.”

While Mackey is no stranger to controversy – the Journal reported in 2007 that Mackey had been using a pseudonym to criticize competitors on online forums for years – his decision to comment on such an intense partisan debate has some questioning his understanding of his core customer base.

“This is more or less what he's doing again, which is independently speaking up and speaking out and not really taking into serious consideration the views of his constituency,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick.

Mackey had been quick to defend and clarify some key points in the piece on his company blog within days, and Whole Foods reacted by adding an online forum to its Web site for customers to discuss the controversy.

Yet, within 10 days of the piece's publication, a Facebook fan page called “Boycott Whole Foods” gathered more than 20,000 fans and the organizers launched a Web site, Twitter feed, Flickr page, and events.

Mark Rosenthal, one of the group's organizers, said by e-mail that the primary purpose is "to get the word out to the Whole Foods customer base about just what values Mackey (and the Whole Foods brand) really represent."

A group called Single Payer Action called for a boycott and the UFCW said they would hold events at Whole Foods stores to educate shoppers about Mackey's opinion on healthcare.

“I would say he's smudged the reputation right now, and I will think he will lose a fair amount of customers,” says Gaines-Ross. “He's not speaking on behalf of the majority of his customers.”

A spokesperson for Whole Foods declined to comment, due to a policy of not speaking to trade magazines because of the “competitive nature of the grocery industry". However, other news reports said the company had sent letters to customers to apologize and had sought to differentiate Mackey's personal opinion from that of the company.

“It's particularly difficult here to separate the CEO from the company because he's also the founder of the company,” says Schechter. “They're going to be impacted by weighing in on this debate.”

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