This past week I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of business professionals at Search Engine Strategies Chicago about Flickr and the ways it can be used to create, build and leverage brand evangelism. Based on conversations I had with audience members after the show, it seems quite a few companies are interested in learning more about how sites like Flickr fit into the conversation taking place online. That's why a post by John Moore of Brand Autopsy has me scratching my head at the short-sightedness displayed by one of the top niche food retailers in the country.

He points to a blog post on the Qipit Blog that shares the writer's experience getting "caught" taking a picture of some cheese at a Whole Foods store.

A while back, I was in the cheese section of the store. I tried a few cheeses and picked a mighty tasty French cheese called Gabietou (Pronounced gah-bee-ay-too). As a native Texan, I am a little language impaired. You've heard W speak right? "How can I possibly remember this French name that I cannot pronounce." I ask myself. The answer for me is that I compensate for my impairment by using technology. In this case, my trusty LG EnV with a sweet 2 megapixel camera.

Much to my surprise, shortly after I took that very picture, I was sternly told, by someone on the Whole Foods staff, not to use my camera phone. The Whole Foods "team member" quoted a company policy that they do not allow pictures to be taken in the store.

Seriously? A company that seems to be as progressive as Whole Foods is using policies THAT antiquated? I realize there was a period in time when the person taking pictures in your store was probably a competitor looking to steal your ideas, but times have changed. If someone wants to come into your store and take pictures for the sake of corporate espionage, technology has progressed to the point you'll never know they were there.

These days, the person whipping out their camera phone or digital camera in plain site in your store is likely just looking to remember something for later. Even better, that person could be a brand evangelist intent on spreading the word about your products or services.

A quick search over at Flickr shows more than ten thousand photos tagged with the phrase "whole foods." Most of the shots are simply pictures people took and uploaded from their everyday life, but some are pure works of art. Images like the one on the right don't tell competitors how to capture the market loyalty Whole Foods has built. Instead, they reinforce Whole Foods' reputation as a place to find copious amounts of fresh, healthy produce and hard to find speciality food items. Heck, some of the images of the dessert case made me want to get in my car and head to my nearest Whole Foods to pick up a scrumptious treat for the weekend.

This is what social media does. It gives people new ways to interact and share their lives and their experiences with people. This is a good thing.

After a run-in of his own with taking pictures at his local Stop & Shop, Seth Godin has this to say:

The irony of the Stop & Shop approach is that the people who you don't want taking pictures–snoopy journalists or competitors–can easily conceal their cameras and you'll never know. But the raving fans, the bloggers, the folks twisted enough to want to take and flickrize their supermarket experiences are your friends.

The way people communicate with each other has changed. Companies can fight it, (to their own detriment) or they can embrace it. The competitor who wants to steal your ideas is going to do it whether you let cameras in your store or not. In the age of social media, Whole Foods should be tracking their customer conversation back to sites like Flickr and focusing on how best to leverage the passion on display there.

It's what you should be doing with your business as well. If you have policies limiting your customers' ability to share their experiences with other people, you need to take some time to examine your reasons for those policies. What made sense twenty, ten or even five years ago doesn't always make sense today. If you have a no photo policy to protect those designer wedding dresses you don't want people to hunt down on the Internet, you're probably using common sense. If your have a no photo policy to "protect" that display of peppers and carrots, you're probably doing more harm than good to your brand.

Think it over.

December 7, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Hi Jennifer. Great post and I wish more companies understood the power of letting go of their message. There are still so many people in Corporate America now that don't truly understand the power of wom, social media, blogging, etc. but would still love to expand their marketing efforts. Quite ironic, isn’t it? :) I hope blog posts like this help change that...and soon!

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