THR Blog   /   October 28, 2014

Cozy Up to Whole Foods

Leann Davis Alspaugh

Whole Foods “Values Matter” campaign ad, Wall Street Journal, October 2014.

( Whole Foods “Values Matter” campaign ad, Wall Street Journal, October 2014.)
Whole Foods “Values Matter” campaign ad, Wall Street Journal, October 2014.

Whole Foods Market is tired of your “whole paycheck” jokes. Recently, “America’s healthiest grocery store” launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign dubbed Values Matter. The Austin-based company won’t divulge the cost of the campaign, but The New York Times reports that the budget was $15–$20 million. The Values Matter campaign includes several different print and digital ads as well as 29 videos available on YouTube. A full-page color ad in the national edition of the Wall Street Journal, for example, costs more than $334,000; multiply that by other print outlets such as Rolling Stone and Bloomberg BusinessWeek along with the costs of videos ranging from 31 seconds to 7 minutes and it’s easy to see why the budget estimate is so large. By any standards, this is a massive campaign.

Whole Foods Market (WFM) is engaged in a hyper-competitive business, operating almost 400 stores with annual sales of $13 billion. In recent months, it has also come in for some bad press with reports of a drop in share prices, talk of inflated prices, and accusations of pseudoscience. Clearly, there’s a lot at stake. Why now and what does Whole Foods hope to achieve? In July, co-CEO John Mackey told investors “We’re trying to advertise who we are. We’re trying to change what we think is a negative narrative about our company.”

So in the spirit of Roland Barthes, let’s look at just one example of a Values Matter print ad and examine its verbal and visual rhetoric. The ad in question appeared in the Eastern edition of the Wall Street Journal on October 23, 2014. The design emphasizes a top-to-bottom vertical reading, from the comely baby sitting on a woman’s shoulders to the headline “Values Matter” and on to the copy below it: “We are part of a growing consciousness that’s bigger than food—one that champions what’s good, and the greater good, too. Where value is inseparable from values.” Beneath that is the WFM logo and the slogan “American’s healthiest grocery store” along with the URL for the campaign on the Whole Foods website.

The design observes a standard, though not particularly innovative, type hierarchy, drawing the eye down in an orderly fashion through each part of the ad. The copy is neither too long nor too short; sentence structure is simple, with extra credit awarded for properly placed commas. Readers can grasp the ad’s meaning with minimal effort. While most of the text is set in a serif font, the phrase “Values Matter” is a handwriting type font that balances legibility and consistency while clearly carrying traces of the human hand. The marketers and designers no doubt spent hours trying to find the perfect font because (like values) these things matter.

The photograph is a carefully selected shot that calls on conventional mother-and-child iconography with the most engaging element, the woman’s open face with its toothy smile, hitting just above the campaign title. Nothing draws our attention like a smiling face, and this attractive woman of indeterminate ethnicity fits the bill. The baby is the jarring note here, his (her?) expression one of solemnity and a touch of hauteur. Considering Whole Foods’ reputation for humorless self-righteousness, one wonders if this is perhaps a Freudian slip? The woman, her hair artfully disheveled, wears a casually chic denim shirt with rolled-up sleeves that complements the outdoor, soft-focus background. She wears a ring on the third finger of her left hand; its significance is open—is it a wedding ring or just decorative?—but in an highly-orchestrated image such as this, its mere existence draws our attention.

These then are the ad’s decodable signs, but there’s even more going on here. We are presented with a photograph that for all its softly appealing palette and engaging style attempts meaning but is beset by discontinuity. The marketers have avoided signaling to any one group (race, class, gender, socioeconomic status) in their choice of models. While the small details are remarkable, the best conclusion we can draw is that these people represent the new bourgeois. In spite of their best efforts, the marketers seek inclusion but the result is exclusion—a rhetoric that is noncommittal and elusive.

Before anyone at Whole Foods approved this ad, we can be sure that every element of it was mercilessly scrutinized—one shudders to think of the long meetings and endless debates. Whole Foods is a company with a clear sense of purpose—and its own Declaration of Independence—so the question isn’t one of corporate confusion. When confronted with a realistic image of a woman and child rendered in an artistic fashion, our minds do more than process mere representation; we comprehend basic—even traditional—associations of motherhood, family, love. Believers might add religious connotations, while the aesthetically minded might recall examples of fine art. In Saussurean terms, the woman and the baby do not in and of themselves represent these religious or cultural qualities. They are merely signifiers of meaning. What is signified is something that a marketing campaign can neither predict nor control, and this is what bedevils any form of advertising, especially, in this case, when the advertiser is aiming to course-correct its brand identity as well as shape its consumers.

Interestingly, other ads from the campaign use much more playful taglines: “Let’s redefine this generation’s definition of yummy” and “The highest standards weren’t available, so we created them.” The succinct and uncompromising “Values matter” carries a different weight altogether. In fact, playing off the notion of “family values” with its polarizing 1990s associations with the Moral Majority and the Republican Party is a bit of a risk for Whole Foods, a company that bases its reputation on social and environmental ethics. WFM’s marketers differentiate themselves delicately yet distinctively by emphasizing “the greater good,” a phrase that has a benevolent expansiveness not found in the media-inflected dogmatism of “family values.” In addition, it is worth noting that the ad includes a gentle pun on dollar value versus cultural value. Further, Whole Foods’ ad copy does not imply that the company is the bellwether for the new values movement, merely that it has responded to “a growing consciousness that’s bigger than food.” Indeed, as has already been remarked in this space, the convergence of consumerism and morality, especially in the area of food, has grown increasingly prevalent in modern culture. Whole Foods is merely identifying a social trend and capitalizing on it as a business model.

In the interest of growth, a company often expands beyond its area of specialization, but the realm of ethics is considerably messier and less quantifiable than profits and dividends. At first glance, the assertion that values matter is potent, concise, and bold—here’s an idea everyone can get behind! Only consider: Both “values” and “matter” introduce as many questions as they answer. Whose values? What do they matter and to whom? What if the tagline were rephrased more assertively as,  “Let’s work toward the greater good” or more pedantically as, “Cultural constructs are of great significance”? While stronger meaning might result, the spark of brevity is lost.

Values matter does what any marketing campaign must by reinforcing the positive in consumers’ minds and inviting them to consider a company as something more than the sum of its parts. A certain wariness about crude commercialism compels even firms so basic as grocery stores to expand beyond their brief and become purveyors of social ethics alongside organic kale. While the Values Matter campaign attempts to make consumers cozy up to Whole Foods, it also introduces a more insidious notion: If you want to exhibit the right values and be a part of the greater good, you can do this at only one place. There was a time when values were inculcated through other community institutions, but now, it appears, these, too, can be bought.