Brand platform innovation at Whole Foods


It’s worth remembering that real brand innovation happens at the structural level, not at the campaign level. For example, it’s a case of brand innovation when Whole Foods makes low-interest loans to local producers to help them bring new sustainable goods to market. This is a smart (and strategic) brand move, for three reasons.

  1. It helps build the Whole Foods brand platform.
  2. It helps Whole Foods innovate with streams of new products.
  3. It raises the brand bar in ways that mainstream grocery chains can’t match.

The loan program thus conveys a strategic advantage to Whole Foods. That’s a pretty nifty brand move that competitors like Safeway (or even Trader Joe’s) may find hard to duplicate.

Let’s see how all this works together.

A brand platform that supports local producers

Here is how Whole Foods describes its loan program:

Whole Foods Market’s Local Producer Loan Program (LPLP) provides up to $10 million in low-interest loans to small, local producers. Why? Because we believe in supporting local farmers and producers. We want to make it easier for them to grow their businesses and bring more local products to market. That’s good for us and it’s good for you.

Loan recipients can be local producers of agricultural crops, value-added food products, or other all-natural grocery items. Producers must meet specified quality, animal compassion and business plan requirements. As an example, school lunch provider Revolution Foods is part of the loan program partnership.

How the loan program helps the Whole Foods brand platform

First, let’s define “brand platform.” From our New Brand Glossary:

The brand platform is a structure of integrated brand components architected to create focused customer growth. As a platform, it: 1) serves as a common foundation for brand program applications; 2) allows for greater efficiency in brand program development via shared elements; 3) leverages context and content across the brand; and 4) enables customers to extend the brand through bottom-up brand innovation avenues.

The loan program certainly contributes to the last two criteria noted above, with the understanding that it’s geared to supplier innovation.

The brand platform is not a campaign

Note that the Whole Foods brand platform has little to do with media campaigns. It has everything to do with creating a structured context that delivers unique products and services that Whole Foods customers can use–to enrich their own lives. In other words, the brand platform is a platform of deliverables–not of symbols or make-believe.

An enabling brand platform component

By extending financial aid to start-up or small-scale producers, the Whole Foods loan program enables more (qualified) producers to thrive, and ultimately enriches the organic/sustainable choices available to Whole Food customers. As a brand platform component, it advances suppliers, Whole Foods, and customers to a new “standard” (i.e., platform level) of living.

The software model comes to grocery brands

Strategically, what Whole Foods is doing with its loan program isn’t really new. It’s been done for decades in the software industry, where leading companies such as Microsoft and Apple rely on software developers to advance their operating systems with innovative new applications. As market leaders, Microsoft and Apple can’t succeed without legions of developers pumping out applications that make their respective operating system all the more essential. Platform Leadership has the details.

From a brand platform perspective, what Whole Foods provides is an “application” of healthy living. The loan program enables new producers and new products to help raise the foundation (platform) of this application.

Whole Foods is building platforms of producers

Brand-wise, Whole Foods is applying the lessons of the software industry to the grocery business.  It is building platforms of producers that bypass the conventional grocery distribution model, a model characterized by old line brands that have to be “sold” from the shelf. In this new context, Whole Foods is more of a “portal” than a conventional “store.” It becomes a means of connecting customers with the organic sources of their foods. This gives Whole Foods customers a transcendent in-store experience.

From brand platform to customer platform

We might say that the Whole Foods brand platform is a structured context of healthy, sustainable deliverables, plus those deliverables themselves. As a brand platform, its strategic goal is to become a customer platform. The loan program is evidence that it’s making strides in that direction.

Photo credit: -pea- Flickr

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