Explore Coverage

Living Maxwell


Is Whole Foods “Brandwashing” Us?

Recently, I received a copy of Martin Lindstrom’s Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.

The reason that I wanted to read it was because Whole Foods was discussed in the book and I was curious to know what he had to say about the company.

As Martin Lindstrom correctly points out, Whole Foods is very strategic in how it merchandises its products. A few examples that he mentioned were:

– Putting flowers by the entrance. These are called “symbolics”,  and they evoke freshness and “prime” us as we begin our shopping.

– All of the signs in the produce and fruit section are written on black slate with chalk, a tradition of European marketplaces. Apparently, marketers refers to this tactic as “farmgate”, so that consumers think a farmer just drove up and dropped off the vegetables.

– Chipped ice is used in displays all over the store and is another “symbolic”. It makes everything from the hummus to the fish seem enticingly fresh. Also, any product sitting on a bed of ice is that much more appealing to the eye.

– At the Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center in New York City, a stack of crates holding cantaloupes is positioned near the entrance of the store. Upon closer inspection, it isn’t a stack of authentic wood crates but one big cardboard box. This is known as a “dummy” and is meant to evoke a Grapes of Wrath era, or a time in life that was much more simple.

Do I have a problem with any of the ways that Whole Foods does its merchandising? Not at all.

Is Whole Foods trying to “brandwash” consumers? Of course.

I’d love to know which top-notch retailer or consumer product company isn’t trying to “brandwash” consumers. That’s an essential part of their business – building a brand and creating loyal customers.

Part of how consumer-focused companies build their brands is through advertising and marketing.

By its nature, advertising is very manipulative and companies embrace the most advanced techniques and technologies in order to get our dollars.

However, one of the reasons that Whole Foods is so successful and why it has developed such brand loyalty is because shopping there is more enjoyable than at any other supermarket.

Whole Foods understands that it is about creating an experience, creating theater. The lighting is soothing, the floors are comforting, the displays are attractive, and the presentation is first-rate.

Is Whole Foods engaging in behavior any more manipulative than other corporations?

Based on what I read in Martin Lindstrom’s book, I’d say absolutely not. In fact, I’d say a lot less.


* Aside from the Whole Foods examples, Brandwashed gives the reader an inside perspective of all of tricks that are going on the world of branding to identify, influence and attract customers.

Needless to say, the strategies used are beyond sophisticated. If you are in the marketing world or run a business, this book could be very helpful to you. It will give you ideas about ways to develop your brand and build your customer base, utilizing techniques that you may never have thought of before.

* Here was some other information from the book that I found to be fascinating.

– The food that pregnant women consume not only impacts the baby’s development but it actually influences the baby’s adult habits. Yes, that is correct. It starts when they are in the womb.

Because an unborn child’s olfactory and taste systems are fully functional by the last two trimesters, by week 12 the neonate can actually detect flavors and aromas. Hence, a fetus that young and not even born yet can be influenced to show a preference for certain brands later on in life.

– 53% of adults and 56% of teenagers use brands that they remembered from their childhoods, especially foods, beverages, health-care and consumer/household goods.

– Studies have shown that by the time they are 36 months old, American children can recognize an average of 100 brand logos.

– Once a boy has tried a Gillette razor twice, there is a 92% chance he will continue using the brand as an adult.

– Nowhere in the world are people more easily brandwashed than in Asia.

– Shrewd companies are able to actually plant somatic markers (mental shortcuts or bookmarks) in our minds by creating associations between some positive emotion and their product.

– Because of digital signage on shelves, some supermarkets in Japan are changing their prices on an hourly basis.

* Martin Lindstrom does an excellent job in discussing dopamine and its role in developing an addiction to a brand or product.

If you’re unfamiliar with dopamine and the role that it plays in regulating our behavior and mood, definitely read up on it. A rudimentary understanding of and appreciation for dopamine is essential for everyone.

* I give Martin Lindstrom big kudos for attacking the use of “natural” as a marketing term for food.

In a previous blog post, I talk about how “natural” stands for practically nothing and is completely inferior to “organic”.

The class action lawsuit against Kashi speaks to this very issue and hopefully will make other companies think twice before they plaster “natural” on the front of all of their products.

* From a branding perspective, Martin Lindstrom clearly knows his stuff. He has been named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 by TIME magazine and advises top executives at companies such as McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, and Microsoft.

Yet, where Martin Lindstrom is shockingly off base is in his statements about organic.

– He says that “We pay exorbitant prices for fruit and produce grown without pesticides…Does any of this actually make us any healthier? No, not really.”

Well, maybe Martin Lindstrom hasn’t read the President’s Cancer Panel report which says that people should avoid eating foods that contain synthetic pesticides or artificial growth hormones.

Or, maybe he should take a look at the Washington State University study which said that organic strawberries have more antioxidants and ascorbic acid than conventional strawberries.

Let’s also throw in the recent University of Barcelona study which said that organic tomatoes have higher levels of polyphenols than conventional tomatoes.

– He says that “other popular buzzwords……like ‘organic’……actually mean very little.”

While this may be very accurate for “natural”, it is absolutely not the case for “organic”. Organic has standards, third-party enforcement and strict regulation.

– He claims that “the latest agricultural and dietary fads of the 21st century” include “…pesticide-free produce…”

Again, another ridiculous statement.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food and beverage sales represented approximately 4 percent of overall food and beverage sales in 2010, and organic fruits and vegetables now represent over 11 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales.

Based on these statistics, I’d love to hear Martin Lindstrom’s explanation of how pesticide-free produce is a fad.


In reading Brandwashed, I couldn’t help but think again about the dire need for a national branding campaign for the organic food industry.

Right now we do practically nothing. And for a $27 billion industry, it makes absolutely no sense.

Advertising whiz Alex Bogusky talked about the importance of such a campaign at Natural Products Expo West this past March in Anaheim, CA.

Additionally, when I attended the Deepak Chopra-hosted discussion about GMOs at ABC Home several months ago, I asked Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg if and when we would be seeing a national branding/advertising campaign for organic. He said to “just wait a few weeks…something is coming.”

While I don’t blame Gary Hirshberg at all (because I know it was a collective effort of many people and groups within the organic industry, and Gary is one of the true leaders in organic and someone I admire very much), I still haven’t seen anything yet. Hopefully, it will be coming soon.


Overall, Brandwashed was a very interesting read and I recommend it for any business owner or professional who works in marketing or is trying to build a brand.

Just don’t listen to anything that Martin Lindstrom has to say about organic.

A message from E3Live

"My Everyday, Must-Have Green Organic Aquabotanical"

The best testimonial that I can give is that I drink this every single day, as it impacts my mood in an incredibly positive way.

E3Live + BrainON is certified organic, fresh-frozen AFA (Aphanizomenon flos-aquae) with a concentrated, aqueous, organic extract of Phenylethylamine and Phycocyanin.

Learn more.

livingmaxwell: a guide to organic food & drink