The opinionated chief executive John Mackey had been posting positive comments about Whole Foods on Yahoo messageboards under an alias. What really caught the SEC’s eye was that he was also posting negative comments about competitor Wild Oats, which Whole Foods then went on to acquire.
This led to an SEC inquiry, which took 10 months to conclude that it was going to let the matter go.
While it is amusing that such a senior retailer got caught out embarking on a fairly juvenile dirty tricks campaign, there is also an important lesson to be leant. Impersonating a customer to leave biased comments on the internet isn’t just bad form, it could be criminal.
Digital marketers have been guilty in the past of trying to promote viral campaigns by seeding community web sites. Legitimate users and site moderators have tended to police this kind of behaviour themselves – even blocking the IP addresses of digital marketers so they can’t use the sites for free marketing.
Now that internet forums are more mainstream and therefore have the power to influence many more consumers, retailers should think more carefully about what their staff are posting where.
The next time it happens, the authorities might not let the culprit off so lightly.