Whole Foods can"t be everything to everyone. 
 
But they can sure try or maybe not. 
 
Those are the tennis match of thoughts I had as I listened to the fourth-quarter earnings report from the Austin, Texas-based company. 
 
Co-CEO John Mackey outlined a 10-point strategy for Whole Foods going forward that focused on cost cutting, marketing, promotion and pricing. 
 
And then he stressed the need to set Whole Foods apart from its many imitators, to differentiate, if you will. 
 
Actually, I heard that word so many times that I went back to the call transcript on SeekingAlpha.com and did a search. 
 
Differentiation, or a variation of that word, was used more than 25 times by Mackey and other Whole Foods notables. 
 
Whole Foods needs to remind consumers who they are, Mackey said. 
 
The first thought I had was, "Remind them of whom? Whole Paycheck?"
 
Whole Foods has worked very hard over the past several years to shed that image. Their prices, particularly in the markets where they did produce pricing pilots, have gotten a lot more competitive. 
 
I did some head-to-head shopping here in Austin, and Whole Foods had H.E. Butt beat on several items like berries, kale and onions, and their organic-conventional markup was pretty reasonable, unlike the $2-plus that H-E-B marked up organic cilantro over its conventional counterpart. 
 
Sprouts Farmers Market was a different story on price comparisons, and I"m pretty sure Mackey"s comments were pointed in that direction. 
 
From the call: "I would say that a lot of the folks that are copying Whole Foods at this point, they are not copying our quality standards, they are copying our look and feel and our marketing," he said during the call. 
 
"And so far, that"s a good strategy. It"s working." 
 
Customers aren"t "looking under the hood" and seeing the differences, he said. 
 
"The differentiation, it"s there," he said. "So we have to do a better job of connecting to our customers to get them to understand that these are not the same things. They may look like they"re the same, but they"re not." 
 
I"m reasonably sure most consumers understand the difference between Whole Foods and its "many imitators." 
 
A recent study by iModerate looked into the perceptions of Whole Foods and Trader Joe"s, for example. The study asked 1,000 consumers to characterize people who shop the chains in order to set the brands apart. 
 
Not surprisingly, the Whole Foods image was "elite," "health-minded," "rich and sometimes a hippie, but still rich." 
 
Ouch. 
 
"Whereas Trader Joe"s shoppers are lovingly viewed as savvy foodies who balance their preferences for healthy eating with their budgets, Whole Foods" shoppers are painted in a much more negative light," Adam Rossow, iModerate"s chief marketing officer, said in a news release. 
 
"Their willingness to shell out top dollar makes them seem elitist. The question is whether the brand image is being reflected onto them or vice versa."
 
And the other thing that caught me about the study: Trader Joe"s was credited for a "healthy" and "organic" image, but I guess they"re not thinking about Two Buck Chuck and cookie butter.
 
Whole Foods did win over study participants when it came to freshness and quality, but "price was the main differentiator" between the brands. 
 
There"s that word again. 
 
I"ve often said that I enjoy the theater of food that is Whole Foods, but don"t shop there regularly. 
 
Hey man, I have kids and a budget. I can afford to drop $37 on deli food only so many times a year. 
 
 
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.
 
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