You’ve said that you think companies today ought to be “purpose-driven.” Do you think there’s a difference between a purpose and a brand?
Brand is just an abstraction. I use that word sometimes but I’m not a big fan of the word because sometimes when people talk about managing their brand they move away from authenticity.
Your brand is just the way people think about the company or the product, so I don’t think the brand is more important than the purpose or the values of the organization.
I sometimes think businesses get that confused. If you want to have a good reputation sometimes you try to manipulate people into thinking better about your brand, and then you’re off track.
Do you see an opportunity to extend the Whole Foods mission beyond produce, to other products and services?
We continue to evolve and our higher purposes are continuing to evolve.
One thing we’ve done in the last couple of years is start the Whole Kids Foundation. We’ve already given away over 2000 salad bars to schools and over 1000 garden grants, and this is only in a couple of years.
This could help our children have a different connection to food and gardening, and a different connection to their health by eating fresher foods. This could end up evolving into one of our higher purposes.
One advantage of being a purpose-driven brand is that you tend to attract like-minded people. Do you see an opportunity to create a community around Whole Foods, particularly online?
Yeah, we are the first- or second-largest company on Twitter and we just had a social media video we produced – “Dark Rye” – win a James Beard award.
We’re very conscious of this. You’ve identified one of the things we want to do but I think we’ve barely gotten started on it. We haven’t yet integrated those higher purposes into our online communities to the extent we could and should.
As my co-CEO says, we’re not retailers with a mission, we’re missionaries who retail.
You represent Whole Foods as co-CEO but you’re also a thought leader in your own right with a book, a blog and regular speaking gigs. Is there ever a tension between what you think as an individual versus what you can say as founder of Whole Foods?
Those are different things. My book is about “conscious capitalism” and that’s part of what Whole Foods has been doing for a long time and other companies as well. But I made a distinction a long time ago and I use an analogy to get people to see it.
When parents have children they love their children but as the children grow up, a healthy parent understands that the child is not themselves. You see all kinds of television shows where the father wants the son to be just like him – that’s a type of narcissism.
An entrepreneur is like a parent who creates a business but at some point the business has its own destiny apart from the entrepreneur. I do not see Whole Foods as an extension of myself. I see it as 34 years old, it’s grown up now, and I’m serving it.
I’m trying to help it flourish just like a good parent would help their child flourish.
I’ve noticed that when you talk about journalists or “the media” you don’t seem particularly fond of us. Am I reading into things?
No, you’re not reading into it. I feel like I’ve been misrepresented by the media frequently. I don’t trust the media.
Sometimes I talk about journalists having a higher purpose, which should be to uncover the truth, and I think many journalists have gotten too deep into postmodern thinking that “it’s all narrative” and there’s no “right” narrative.
When you don’t believe there’s any kind of objective truth then you can come up with any narrative you want to. So they’ve moved away from what I think the higher purpose of journalism is.
We may not know the truth in any absolute sense but the journalist looks and digs to unveil the complexity of truth. The journalist with integrity is always seeking to throw more light on things.
So when I’ve felt slandered by journalists it’s because they made no attempt to represent what I said and they made no attempt to really discover what I believed and felt. They already had a story written and they just wanted to get a couple of sensationalist quotes to fill out their story.
In his own words
John Mackey on Whole Foods’ four “higher purposes”: