Posted by: Charlie | August 18, 2009

Know Your Audience – Or They Will Fight Back

Carrots For Corporate Social Responsibility?

Carrots For Corporate Social Responsibility?

There is a business motto saying ‘the customer is always right.’ That is of course unless they are left.

Whole Foods founder John Mackey recently published his personal  recommendation for health care reform in the Wall Street Journal – bad timing in a hot debate and bad economy. Not every Whole Foods consumer sides with Mackey’s politics. Although Whole Foods claims that his views do not represent those of the firm, his remarks have turned into a PR nightmare. The Economist reports that over 13,000 loyal Whole Foods consumers are boycotting the natural foods giants.

Mackey should have considered his customers before raising his voice amongest a heated political debate – it especially does not help to more or less blame Americans for being overweight. Many of his personal politics do not align with his liberal consumers, a large portion of the Whole Foods demographic. In hindsight his blunder is an obvious neglect of consumer of loyalty. But Mackey surely knew better – at least according to the Whole Foods website.

“His business philosophy is to act with care and responsibility toward all of the various stakeholder groups of the Company and to operate Whole Foods Market with social and environmental responsibility”

Mackey is entitled to his personal opinions, but in abusing his podium he has upset multiple stakeholders with different social views. Long known as an advocate the democratic powers of a dollar, Mackey’s consumers are using his principals against him, literally ‘biting the hand that feeds.’

Consumer boycotts are not a new phenomenon, but online organizing has made boycotts more prominent and powerful. blogger Michael Jones recently exposed Tim Horton’s sponsorship of Natinoal Organization for Marriage and has called for a boycott. Jones and Rattray from effectively used this same tactic against Rockstar Energy Drink, producing a $100,000 charitable donation to LGBTQ groups.

Corporate social responsibility is not an option when consumers have the power to keep corporations responsible. Better branding will not fix this PR problem. Vertical marketing can no longer supplant the horizontal distribution of social media. If the internet is a platform to organize thousands of people in “flashmobs” just for fun, businesses should be increasingly worried about consumer mobs. But contrary to The Economist’s advice silence is not the only option. New platforms have enabled corporations to take proactive steps towards more responsible business. For example, Virgance’s Carrotmob, a network of consumers who organize recognize and reward socially responsible firms with “mob” business. Whole Foods might take a hint.

Actions may speak louder than words, but in Mackey’s case,  words inspired action – against him and his company. Whole Foods may be first and foremost responsible to its shareholders, but its leaders best be aware of millions of powerful stakeholders.

Could it be that left or right the consumer wields the power?



  1. Mackey bragged about cutting back healthcare for his employees in the editorial. Most supermarket employees are unionized and paid better than Whole Foods workers. Mackey is getting exactly what he deserves.

  2. Mackey is foolish for publishing that. I would have expected better out of him in today’s world of social media and the empowered consumer.

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