Marketing, social media, and how Whole Foods became the neighborhood grocery store: Is the nature of a company as important as how it handles social media?
A lot has been written about Whole Foods’ success in social media, with much analysis of the company’s use of social channels for specific types of communication and conversation. Interestingly, though, analysts seem not to have observed the evolution of Whole Foods’ use of social media and the fact that the company has been very adaptable in employing platforms. In 2009, Whole Foods had facebook, twitter and flickr accounts, plus a blog and videos; by 2011 they’d added foursquare. Today, their website links to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+ and Youtube, with a primary focus on the company’s blog, facebook, and twitter accounts. Whole Foods isn’t afraid to add new platforms that might work, and drop those that don’t.
So why have social media been so important to the success of Whole Foods? Aside from the company’s high level of online activity and consistent cross-channel presence, the gurus point out a clear delineation between the functions and types of conversation occurring through different channels. Curiously, though, these uses have been shifting and fluid, too. It appears that, for Whole Foods, there is no formula for what works best and where. For example: while in 2009 a WF exec reported the company employed twitter as its customer relations channel, that’s changed. Today Facebook includes recipes, contests, and events, but is now also the company’s primary customer relations center. Perhaps a smart move, as this is arguably the most public platform, and provides an opportunity for the company to show its responsiveness to issues at greater length – and address many concerned customers in a wide-reaching and relatively permanent forum. Twitter, on the other hand, has become a more controlled channel with corporate posts focusing on individual recipes, products and events, and separate (almost invariably positive) employee/customer conversations happening in response to each.
Flickr is gone. Foursquare is gone. Pinterest includes lots of recipes but also features items of contiguous interest to the primarily female audience of the channel, such as kitchen design, travel and beauty. Whole Foods’ Instagram gallery ranges from photos of food (the most popular type of photo on the site) to Whole Foods-related travel – typical Instagram subjects. Google+ replicates the material found on facebook and other channels, but speaks to a family of self-enrolled fans; youtube focuses on people and their stories. Each platform has a different audience and purpose, with suitable sharing of items that appeal to subsets within its urban, upscale market.
To me the question is: What do the channels have in common? Whole Foods uses each in an intensely and truly social way, with the focus being on sharing of recipes, information, ideas, stories, and contests (the most recent, “It’s in the Bag,” asks visitors to submit photos of their dog or cat interacting with a Whole Foods bag – a well-conceived promotion, given that two-thirds of American households own one or the other).
Whole Foods employs very little overt product promotion, and each platform displays responsiveness at the local store level, with a lot of agency granted to individual stores and employees to use social media to build relationships.
So why does this work? I think that the “social” success of Whole Foods goes deeper than a well-conceived and well-executed social media strategy, and reaches something innately fundamental.
For centuries, until the 1930s, the market – the neighborhood grocery store – was a community’s major social hub. It was where people gathered around the cracker barrel to gossip, share cooking ideas, exchange news and just hang out.
But by the 1950s and 60s, the big, bright, impersonal supermarket was well entrenched. The miracle of progress had paved over the neighborhood grocery, taking with it an important communal activity.
It may just be that Whole Foods’ social media strategy is such a success not only because it is executed so well, but because it is fulfilling a true social need: the need to break bread, gather around food, share stories, and unite around the pleasure of fulfilling a primal physical need with a group of other humans.
And perhaps Whole Foods has recognized the importance of that need. Right down to replicating the role of the neighborhood grocery store by reserving a couple of items you can’t get anywhere else, and holding them until you can pick them up.