What should we make of the Whole Foods admitting that their CEO posted comments under a fictitious identity on Yahoo Finance stock forums? The exercise that included negative comments about Wild Oats, a company Whole Foods has been looking to acquire? Writes the Wall Street Journal:
For about eight years until last August, the company confirms, Mr. Mackey posted numerous messages on Yahoo Finance stock forums as Rahodeb. It's an anagram of Deborah, Mr. Mackey's wife's name. Rahodeb cheered Whole Foods' financial results, trumpeted his gains on the stock and bashed Wild Oats. Rahodeb even defended Mr. Mackey's haircut when another user poked fun at a photo in the annual report. "I like Mackey's haircut," Rahodeb said. "I think he looks cute!"
Not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of buzz and conversation on this topic. My take: this is a classic Tragedy of the Commons – and it’s precisely the type activity the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has proactively sought to address through it’s ethics code. But there’s an extra dose of irony in this particular case study that puts the still evolving case study in far more conspicuous light relative to other incidents. Let me outline:
- The Irony of the Agent: First, the agent of the abuse isn’t a agency, and untrained intern, or even your “usual suspect” unscrupulous marketer or buzz agency. It’s the CEO of a publicly traded company. From a talk value perspective, this puts the incident in an immediate “man bites dog” category.
- The Irony of the Brand: Secondly, there’s irony in that the incident
is sourced from a brand that’s benefited
enormously from unaided -- dare I say "organic" -- word-of-mouth. The story of Whole Foods is one of brand evangelism, fortified by great
experiences, great food, and great “always there to help” people. “In New York
City,” whole foods is like church,” said Dana Weisman of the 92nd Street
Y, who asked me about this topic while I conducted a word-of-mouth marketing
workshop this morning. Indeed,
this should be the last brand on earth that needs an any dosage of manipulation.
- The Irony of the "Organic" Label: The essence the term “organic” – the foundational equity of Whole Foods – is all about purity, authenticity, sincerity, and all things real. Beyond just “breaking the rules,” the bogus posting incident compromises if not betrays these ideas. Just read their Declaration of Interdependence. Imagine if Al Gore started driving a Hummer to the front of his house just to fetch the newspaper?
All of these factors – combined with the obvious violation of accepted norms of ethical online behavior rule – have the potential to keep this story alive. Irony drives conversation. Mismatches between brand claims and realities typically leads to a digital trail of word-of-mouth. For the sake of protecting and nurturing your brand, stay transparent!
Resources to Guide Smart, Ethical Decisions