The last time I wrote about Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, I was highly critical of his ill-advised posts to an investor chatboard, under the assumed name "rahodeb," that talked up Whole Foods' prospects and trashed Wild Oats, a competitor that Whole Foods would later attempt to take over (leading to questions of whether Mackey had deliberately tried to drive down the stock price of Wild Oats in advance of the take over). Mackey at first dismissed the controversy, then was pushed reluctantly into apologizing, while Whole Foods had launched an investigation into the matter and shut down Mackey's blog.
Two years later, Mackey is still CEO of Whole Foods. And he was back in the news, controversial in an entirely new way that has raised my respect for the man immensely.
In August, Mackey wrote a thoughtful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare," that I rate as the most intelligent and cogent proposal yet offered on reforming health-care in America. Mackey's plan focused on meaningful reforms to cut costs, which would enable coverage to be extended to the uninsured without added to the exploding national debt or expanding government bureaucracy.
The reaction from the left was swift and stunning. Progressives felt betrayed by a company that serves a customer base that undoubtedly leans toward the progressive (i.e, liberal) side of the political spectrum. How could Mackey speak out against health care reform as they have defined it?
As ABC News put it: "Many say Mackey was out of line to opine against the liberal base that has made his fortune possible."
The Whole Foods Boycott was launched on Facebook within days with this rationale: "Whole Foods has built its brand with the dollars of deceived progressives. Let them know your money will no longer go to support Whole Foods' anti-union, anti-health insurance reform, right-wing activities."
Pretty strong stuff. What ever happened to freedom of speech and the idea that truth emerges from the vigorous debate of opposing points of view in the marketplace of ideas?
From a brand-management stand-point, Mackey's high-profile opinions seem ill-advised. When a brand is closely connected to a lifestyle that tends to be synonymous with a certain world view, espousing an alternative world view can be expected to rile customers and damage the brand. It isn't likely that conservatives will adopt Whole Foods as their grocery of choice, adopting an organic lifestyle in sympathy for Mackey's views on health care -- although according to the Christian Science Monitor, some are doing just that: "Conservatives have rallied to Mackey’s side, and members of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition are being urged to flood the parking lots and aisles of their local Whole Foods store and stage a 'buycott.'" I don't expect this counter-reaction to have much staying power.
Wholeboycott.com claims it registered 23,000 supporters in the week after the boycott was announced, and that Whole Foods' brand favorablility had taken a 10-point hit.
Mackey surely knew that his op-ed wouldn't sit well with progressives. Apparently he chose to voice his convictions on a politicized issue because he genuinely wanted to advance the debate and despite the ramifications. As an individual thought-leader, his principled stand is admirable -- and wholly unexpected given his prior rahodeb wackiness. But as the most prominent member of management of a company catering to a liberal clientele, his outspokenness does not advance the value of the brand and his shareholder bosses may want to shorten his leash.
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The White House is making no effort to lower sky-high expectations for President Obama's speech on healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night. On the contrary, the speech is being billed as a critically important moment for Obama to take control of a debate (that has clearly gone off the tracks). It is classic Obama -- play to his undeniable strengths as an orator and use a highly visible speech to sort out a controversy. (Just as he responded to the ruckus over Reverend Wright last year during the campaign by delivering a forceful speech on race relations.)
The format is almost perfect -- Obama is at his best delivering a momentous speech, addressing Congress showcases the President as the true leader of the nation, television captures it all, and there is no Q&A time for journalists or town hall attendees to ask difficult questions. Almost perfect, but not quite. Obama' won't be helped in his critical tak of winning over the hearts and minds of middle-of-the-road moderate America by the backdrop behind him: VP Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi cheering him on. Biden is at best neutral but Pelosi is a powerfully negative personality to much of America, with one of the lowest approval ratings among national politicians.