Grocery chain Trader Joe's has built a devoted following that other brands might only dream of.
It has a podcast. It prints an old-timey newsletter called the Fearless Flyer that makes readers laugh out loud. Fans rave about the high-quality, affordable groceries and the friendly employees who wear Hawaiian shirts. Some people even go out of their way to live near a Trader Joe's.
That's the fruit of the company's efforts to create a fun and quirky shopping experience. But today's increasingly polarized society puts Trader Joe's in a tough spot: It can't please everyone anymore.
Recent criticism has charged that branding it uses on certain product lines, such as Trader Ming's and Trader Jose's, are racist. An online petition gathered thousands of signatures last month, and when Trader Joe's said it had long since begun phasing out those labels, headlines trumpeted that the chain was changing its ways. Backlash followed, and then the company changed the tone of its messaging, distancing itself from the petition.
Having to contend with a wedge issue could be a turnoff for younger shoppers, who tend to want the companies they support to have social values that dovetail with their own.
"They're looking for that community and that brand promise," said Courtney Newell, chief executive of Crowned Marketing and Communications and author of "FutureProof: The Blueprint for Building a Brand Gen Z and Millennials Love." "Those are really the things that are going to drive their (purchasing) decisions."
If shoppers embrace a brand because it resonates with them emotionally, then a difference of opinion can feel like a betrayal.
Lupita Huerta used to decide where she'd live based in part on how close it was to a Trader Joe's store. But the chain's stances during this time of nationwide unrest did not sit well with her.
"The packaging is just the bottom of the barrel, the low-hanging fruit" that's easy to change, said Huerta, a 30-year-old transportation planner from El Monte, Calif. "This is really a time where companies need to reflect on what their goal is in this movement and how they can push forward racial justice in their day-to-day operations."
After seeing the company's response and reading reports of its opposition to employee unionization efforts, Huerta stopped shopping at Trader Joe's. She now goes to Sprouts.