Whole Foods is in a bit of an (organic) pickle following a social media publicity stunt gone wrong.


In the wake of riots that have broken out in Baltimore following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal injury while in police custody, Whole Foods wanted to do what it could to contribute to those in need during the time of crisis. Unfortunately, the way that the health food chain chose to go about this didn’t sit too well with the public.


The backlash ensued after the Harbor East Whole Foods store in Baltimore posted a photo on its Instagram feed of National Guard soldiers, who were dispatched to patrol the city when riots began, proudly posing with sandwiches that the grocery store had donated.


This image was posted to the Whole Foods Instagram along with the caption: "We teamed up with @mtwashingtonwfm to make sandwiches for the men and women keeping Baltimore safe. We are so thankful to have them here and they're pumped for Turkey & Cheese!" (money.cnn.com)

The image posted on the Harbor East Whole Foods Instagram page was accompanied by the caption: “We teamed up with @mtwashingtonwfm to make sandwiches for the men and women keeping Baltimore safe. We are so thankful to have them here and they’re pumped for Turkey & Cheese!” (money.cnn.com)

While the post was undoubtedly intended to tout the goodwill of Whole Foods, the effect has been entirely different. Instead, the photo came off as a display of the chain’s partiality in a polarized debate on social issues, like race relations. It also served as an example of misplaced priorities and a clear deviation from the community-oriented values on which the company claims to be built.


The photo on Instagram essentially made it seem as though Whole Foods was taking a stance against the protesters in Baltimore by positioning itself with the National Guard. By focusing its attention on the National Guard soldiers whom Whole Foods was supporting with its donations, the photo also managed to serve as a reminder of those individuals that Whole Foods was not helping: the citizens of Baltimore whose lives have been impacted the most by the current unrest.


Whole Foods has since removed the photo from its Instagram account and attempted to appease the public with assurances of its concern for the community of Baltimore in its entirety. It has even responded to various commenters on social media to spread awareness of its partnerships with organizations that arrange things like lunch and snack donations to children affected by school closings.


Unfortunately for Whole Foods, a single image can carry a great deal of power in shaping brand image, and the way the chain represented itself and its priorities with this Instagram post served to anger an already heated public.


Even in the event that Whole Foods has truly made an effort to give back to all of the citizens of Baltimore, as it claims it has, it is still impossible to ignore the partiality echoed in its Instagram post. Regardless of whom Whole Foods is supporting in Baltimore, it ultimately chose to solely highlight an instance of supporting the National Guard, as opposed to the community at large.


It is crucial for companies and brands in the digital age to be aware of the messages they are sending with each post, both explicitly and implicitly. Each post and image on social media may not be able to tell the whole truth behind your brand’s story and actions, but we’ve seen just how easily it can unravel it.


Do you think the Whole Foods compromised its values and image as a community-oriented brand with its post highlighting its efforts to support the National Guard in Baltimore? Share your thoughts below or tweet me @tamarahoumi