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Separating the CEO from the Brand – Better Luck Separating the Wet from the Water

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Whole Foods tries to manage potential fallout from CEO John Mackey’s Wall Street Journal OpEd on ObamaCare.

Last week, the often outspoken John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, wrote an OpEd piece in the Wall St. Journalopinion criticizing the President’s public health initiative. He went as far as to declare that healthcare is not a right any more than food and shelter are rights for Americans.

This week, spokesperson Libba Letton, said the company was responding to emails about Mackey’s article. “We’re trying to explain that it was intended to be a personal opinion and not on behalf of the company.”

Good luck!

The CEO of a company is always inextricably linked to the brand. What ties Mackey even closer (if that’s even possible) are two factors: First, he is known for speaking frankly and “from the hip.” Second – and specifically in this instance – Mackey sites several Whole Foods examples to prove his points on healthcare reform.

It may be too early to tell the extent of the fallout. Several groups have tried to organize consumer boycotts of the company.Those who follow the company and industry closely also expect these efforts to have some impact. Robert Passikoff, branding expert and founder of Brand Keys Consulting said: “Whole Foods has a particularly large segment of consumers who have a politically liberal tendency. That group looks at Whole Foods as a liberal brand. For them, this is now an issue of brand dissonance.”

Michelle Chang, an analyst with investment research firm Morningstar boldly states: “Any concern about its image would damage sales heavily.”

The general public may either strongly disagree with or align themselves tightly to Mackey’s opinion. Marketing, branding and communications professionals may offer conflicting advice. And some industry analysts may predict deep loss where others say it’ll barely impact the company at all. But one thing all will agree on is that what a CEO says reflects directly on his/her company.

We wonder if Mackey will ever learn – or wants to. It is nearly two years now since Mackey was “outed” for anonymously posting disparaging blog and Yahoo bulletin board entries about his competitors, namely, Wild Oats. His own communications team was forced to admit that was a blunder, banned such postings and revised policy. What will they do now?

What is your opinion? Do you believe there is any way for the CEO’s opinion to be separated from the brand? What advice would you give Mr. Mackey and what precedents would you site?
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Check out: CNNMoney.com’s article: Whole Foods sweats CEO’s health care manifesto at: http://tinyurl.com/kpqlv8

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