Behind the Brand: Whole Foods

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During a recent Brand Innovators livecast, leaders from the Whole Foods brand team shared how they were hired to help Whole Foods better shape the brand’s vision.

Whole Foods is best known as the grocery store chain that offers a healthy range of high-quality premium foods that help consumers meet their health and sustainability goals. Their purpose: nourish people and the planet.

Looking to realize this purpose in branding and marketing terms, the brand recruited talent from the agency world to help tell this story. During a recent Brand Innovators livecast, leaders from the Whole Foods brand team shared how they were hired to help Whole Foods better shape the brand’s vision.

Madhavi Reese, VP of Brand at Whole Foods, joined the grocery chain in 2017, after 18 years on the agency side. She said it was a “complete accident” and “some trick recruiting” that got her a job at Whole Foods. 

“The way it happened for me was my role at the agency was a brand planner and I primarily focused on new business, so I had all the excitement, all the rage, and all of the close contacts that you get when you are pitching new business. In the midst of one of those new pitches, I got a cold call from a recruiter that said, ‘Hey, we are really looking for somebody that wants to think differently about brands and about strategy and we have got a CMO that is going outside of the traditional industry that might be a good fit. Would you come in and have lunch with us?’,” said Reese. “I said no, and they wouldn’t give up. They said, ‘Listen Madhavi, you might be good but there are not that many people that would refuse a 15 minute chat with the CMO of Whole Foods.’ It just so happened the agency I worked at was across the street, and I literally crossed the street with no intention of changing jobs, but one meeting with my now boss Sonia, our CMO, just shook my world and I couldn’t say no.” 

Will Chau, Executive Leader of Creative at Whole Foods, joined the brand from GSD&M in 2018, where he was overseeing creative for brands including Southwest Airlines, Kohler and Zales. 

“I wasn’t looking for a job either,” said Will Chau, Executive Leader of Creative at Whole Foods. “I was really happy in my role, happy as a clam, and when this opportunity presented itself, Madhavi called me and said, ‘Hey, we are looking for someone to lead the creative department at Whole Foods.’ My first question was, ‘Whole Foods does advertising?’ I didn’t even know. After talking to a bunch of people, I got more and more interested. It wasn't so much about the work but just about the potential of helping to nurture our culture that got me interested.” 

When they joined, both of these leaders found the company a bit chaotic and full of a hippie spirit. Their task has been to help use the brand’s rich heritage and foundation to create a central vision that unifies the brand across its 500 stores. 

Working in a culture of people that are truly committed to doing the work, they embraced this spirit to help establish core values and articulate the brand’s position and then looked at how to manifest this in today’s marketplace. 

“We are always going to embrace innovation and technology and how does that come into play with Willie Nelson and Birkenstocks? Because that is important too, we should never forget that,” said Chau. 

It has been about balancing loyal customers with the occasional shopper. Notably, 10% of Whole Foods customers make up almost 40% of their profit. “We are always going to put those folks at the top of our priority list,” said Madhavi. “At the same time if we really want to realize our mission, if we actually want to nourish all people and truly nourish the planet, we can’t do that with a population that is this big. Even just to actualize our mission and why we are all here, we have to extend the way in which we think about our aidences. So hopefully you experience from any marketing at the brand, it feels true to you if you are a Whole Foods loyalist but it also feels interesting and inviting if you are maybe not quite there yet and you are more of what we call an occasional shopper.”

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