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How Whole Foods Became The Luxury Brand Of Millennials

Does a bag full of organic produce say more about you than designer labels? For a new generation, does Whole Foods define the highest level of consumerism?

America’s definition of luxury is changing. Quiet, exclusive, and socially pedigreed extravagance is giving way to a new generation of affluent consumers (read: Millennials) who have grown up with a new definition of luxury that will forever change the way we market upscale goods.

As the founder of Pavone, an integrated ad agency that specializes in food and beverage marketing, I’ve had the chance to observe these changes up close and personally. The trend is especially relevant to me because it seems to have become most distinctive in the food and beverage industries. As a Baby Boomer, luxury is about designer labels and rarefied retail temples like Neiman Marcus. These outlets are full of lithe, headless mannequins, invisible cash registers, and generically attractive retail associates who all adopt the same quiet and impossibly dignified manner.

Whole Foods’ retail model has turned this blueprint on its head by reinventing the way well-heeled consumers think about upscale goods. They’ve taken the old cues for austerity, economy, and frugality and applied them in new ways to spread their message of eco-friendly capitalism to the world (or at least to some of the better zip codes in America).

Instead of cold, intimidating retail vaults awash in tastefully, restrained colors, Whole Foods provides a hip, eclectic sort of vibe that feels like a Berkeley revival with no credit limit. Funky music blares, dreadlocked associates staff checkout aisles and shoppers are a mix of artsy-looking moms, retirees in pricey but well-cushioned running shoes, and a constant stream of suits taking a quick break from corporate America while awaiting a $15 turkey sub and some curried sweet potato couscous.

The rise of Whole Foods is important because it is emblematic of a larger shift in affluent marketing. Here’s how:

  • Provenance: Premium pricing is rationalized in part by ensuring consumers’ awareness that real people are touching (or "curating") the things they buy. Next to those beautiful $10 containers of fruit in the produce department, Whole Foods posts signs announcing that these goods are not only natural or organic, but were cut up by hand by real people named Miranda, Steve, or Bethina. To drive this personal touch home, Whole Foods features store employees’ names and sketches throughout the store on well-placed chalkboards.
  • Inclusion: Despite Whole Foods’ locations in pricey neighborhoods, its personnel is diverse. Each location I’ve visited seems to feature a dynamic employee mix of various ages, genders, ethnicities, and funkiness.
  • Egalitarian: Whole Foods’ employees seem to be united in their casual willingness to greet you (but not in a perfunctory way), to talk to you and with you (but not bog you down with chitchat), and to smile at you as you walk by. It’s as if they really like you. Like they’re happy to be there. Like you’re one of them.
  • Informational: Whole Foods can’t stop talking about where they got the food they sell, how it was made, who made it, where it’s going, or what’s going to happen to it when you throw out the leftovers. This kind of information is on the pack, on electronic displays, on chalkboards throughout the store, in brochures around the store, on websites, and in press releases. They give new meaning to the word "transparent."
  • Authenticity: Whole Foods’ consumers want a reason to believe, and they love a credible, authentic voice that delivers on its promise.

Whole Foods has been able to create value (which justifies high prices) not just by providing hard-to-find organic or all-natural products and labels. They’ve also created a high-touch, overtly humanized experience that is designed to make you, the shopper, feel smarter, healthier, cooler, and wealthier than you do in any other food shopping experience.

Yes, in a world filled with slick iPhones, sleek cars, and perfectly constructed dress pants, locally grown, small-batch food touched by human hands has become the new luxury. Whole Foods tapped into this need, and has attracted formerly closeted affluents into its aisles, piled high with cheese wheels and homemade marshmallows, to explore new, previously unknown ways to spend their disposable income.

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