Self-Rating Systems: Yelp Yourself?

Whole Foods peach display
By Allison Mabry   |   November 17, 2014

A nascent marketing trend is companies developing their own systems for rating themselves and their products. The question is whether customers will consider this helpful or self-serving.

Consider what Austin-based Whole Foods Market has recently implemented: a produce rating system of its own design called Responsibly Grown. This caught my attention because businesses don’t usually create systems that rate their own merchandise.  The lack of third-party independence makes a “my product is the best because I said so” rating rather unpersuasive.  Besides, Whole Foods customers could readily evaluate for themselves the quality of the produce just by browsing through the store.  No fancy system needed. So instead, Whole Foods rates something completely different.

The new Responsibly Grown standards assess how items are grown and their impacts on human health and the environment, such as farm working conditions, water conservation, soil health, and native species protection.  These measures can’t easily be evaluated by customers themselves, so the system provides transparency into the agricultural practices of the farms …and cleverly positions Whole Foods as a trustworthy authority on the farmers rather than its own products.

People prefer to do business with companies they know and like.  In the absence of direct personal interaction, consumers look to other trusted sources to help mitigate the risk that comes from buying a product or service they don’t already know.  Rankings of films or restaurants by critics, often illustrated by the number of stars given, are one source.  Ratings systems, like the one offered by the Better Business Bureau since 1912, are another source.  Modern versions are customer review ratings systems such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, and Angie’s List. The heart of any ranking or rating system is the list of standards against which the company, product, or service is evaluated.

Before a company invests the time and effort to develop a ratings system—Whole Foods reportedly took three years to develop their system with input gathered from suppliers, scientists, and issue experts—companies might consider two questions:

Do the standards reflect values held by my customers?

Will enforcing these standards encourage my customers to buy from me rather than my competitors?

By my own observation, the Responsibly Grown rating system does reflect the values of Whole Foods target customers—and perhaps those of the growing segment of consumers concerned with better understanding the food supply chains that sustain us all.  It will be interesting to see whether this program increases long-term sales at Whole Foods, and to see if more businesses create their own rating systems.

Photo credit: Whole Foods Market

by Robert Schuller

About the Author

Allison oversees the development of design projects from concept to completion. From web design to print ads, Allison's 15 years of experience and keen eye help convey each client's message with clarity and creativity. Allison was designated an Associate of DeLaune and Associates in 2008.

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