Community Over Calamity
Engaging in Troubling Times
“We’re in this together.” It’s just what you say in times like this when it’s easy to feel stranded and out to sea. There’s nothing like a shared experience, especially a shared hardship, to build customer loyalty – as long as your customers truly feel like you’re sharing.
In 1981, Whole Foods Market was just the new “granola” grocery store in Austin. They’d made waves by applying the supermarket concept to the natural foods segment but were still an unproven commodity when the worst flood in 70 years hit the Colorado River city that Memorial Day. Founders John Mackey and Renee Lawson had put everything they had into the store, and without insurance $400,000 worth of equipment and inventory were total losses.
The flood affected more than just Whole Foods, of course; the entire city was in a state of shock. So what Mackey and Lawson did next was uncommonly bold – they asked for help. They were honest about the fact that they would need breathing room from investors and vendors that they owed money to and told their customers that while they were going to need time to reopen, they DID intend to get business back on track.
Customers showed up anyway, not to demand that the store let them buy but to help with cleanup. Neighbors showed up volunteering to help with repairs. Vendors extended them product on credit and the store was remarkably able to reopen only 28 days after the flood. And it was all growth from there – by 1984 they were expanding to other cities.
Not every disaster or business is cut out for customers to directly contribute and Whole Foods had clearly built up extraordinary levels of goodwill leading up to the flood. But earnestly and openly engaging your clientele and community in this unique moment can earn you the kind of mutually beneficial symbiosis that takes decades to get organically.
Whole Foods still tells the story of the flood; it’s on the corporate website, the Wikipedia page and is part of their employee onboarding as the origin story behind one of their core values. The flood rebuild marks the day when they realized that given the chance customers and neighbors can be just as invested as the people who provide capital.
The truth is that we ARE all in this together but simply saying so isn’t enough. Everyone is looking for any excuse not to buy what you’re selling but if your customers hear relatable stories, determined solutions and honest engaging outreach, they will be invested in your story, in their relationship with you and in the material benefits you can provide to them. There’s a reason team buildings have trust falls – loyalty comes from shared experience. So share it and show your customers a brand with a purpose they can trust.