social media backlash

A small startup out of Silicon Valley called Bodega came under fire yesterday for appropriating the name and concept. The responses cited Bodega being misguided and coming off as all-around sleezy (my word). I saw the FastCompany article spotlighting them and their possibly hazardous mistakes that led to the social media backlash.

This post is not on their poor rollout or faulty concept, but rather an analysis of the reply that Paul McDonald, one of the owners of the company, posted to Medium in the hopes of clearing up some issues pointed out in the backlash.

Here’s my breakdown of his reply, addressed directly to the founders, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Rajan (the letter is in bold italics).

Today we announced Bodega, and while we were hoping for a big response, the reaction that we got this morning certainly wasn’t what we expected. A FastCompany story about us broke early this morning that brought up several points we wanted to address head on.

I’ll stop you right there. When you say “…wasn’t what we expected” you highlight the fact that you had no perspective on this company’s concept, name, or the entire situation. This whole situation reeks of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad with its lack of self-awareness or empathy. These are two huge components of emotional intelligence, a sign of great leaders.

We believe, as this Quartz article states, that “[t]he future of retail is tiny stores everywhere that sell exactly what you need.” Corner stores in places like NYC are a model for this — they’re on nearly every block and serve their local neighborhoods 24/7. We’re trying to use technology to bring some of that same ease and convenience to everyone by putting tiny stores right where people live and work.

First, you quoted what might be the only positive piece written about your company. Second, that quote does not in any way justify what Bodega purports to do. People have what they need, they just have to travel farther to get it. You aren’t looking to add to this, you’re looking to bring those stores closer to customers. You’ve created the child of the employee-less Amazon store and a vending machine. It doesn’t seem like you studied the market in which you plan to do business.

So, to get to the issues:

Are we trying to put corner stores out of business?

Definitely not. Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal.

That seems like a shallow truth. That same FastCompany article quoted Mr. McDonald as saying, “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.” You say centralized shopping locations, but you aren’t selling what people go to Target for on a shopping trip; you’re specifically going after the convenience and offerings of the corner store.

Corner stores have been fixtures of their neighborhoods for generations. They stock thousands of items, far more than we could ever fit on a few shelves. Their owners know what products to carry and in many cases who buys what. And they’re run by people who in addition to selling everything from toilet paper to milk also offer an integral human connection to their patrons that our automated storefronts never will.

I’m not sure what the point of this paragraph is. You point out what a corner store is but not how you specifically aren’t going after their market. It seems like you are just tugging at heart-strings in the hopes that we will see some obvious difference between you and corner stores.

We want to bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist. Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega — delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open.

Here’s where you completely lost me. There are two points. You want to open these wooden vending machines “where commerce currently doesn’t exist”. People are not going to get ketchup from you, then go buy another bottle from the corner store. Let’s be very clear: you’re replacing the need to go to the corner store. That’s a major part of what is upsetting people. Second point: You don’t want to eliminate jobs, you want to “help create them”? A few questions you should have addressed: How much do one of these things cost to run? How are we supposed to know if it’s even affordable? And didn’t you specifically say you aren’t trying to replace bodegas?

Is this just for Kind Bars and coconut water?

No, our cabinets are 8 square feet of retail shelf space that can sell anything — not just the snacks of the stereotypical Whole Foods set. Each Bodega is designed to house everyday essentials tailored to its location. For offices, that might be snacks and office supplies. On a college campus, it could be electronics, school supplies, and personal care items. In a gym, it’s supplements and workout gear. While we’ve seen that there are some key items by location, the products and brands in every location will eventually vary considerably.

You started off this answer by literally marketing your product. The question (you asked yourself) was about the products inside the machine. You replied by telling us how big it was. You’re going to sell office supplies to an office? Who is going to own said machine inside an office? If it’s the office owner, the employees are going to wonder why they’re buying supplies from their boss. On a college campus, there are already stores that sell those products – so you will be eliminating those jobs. Rest assured, the college will own these new machines, not the employee in the campus store. Many gyms already sell the products you suggest for them, so it might be the only place this makes sense,. But you’ve still eliminated the job of the person who would work that store. Unemployment line 1, Bodega 0.

What’s with our name?

In Spanish, “bodega” can mean grocery store, wine cellar, or pantry. In many major cities, it’s come to mean the mostly independently-run corner stores that populate the city and serve the community. Like NYC’s bodegas, we want to build a shopping experience that stands for convenience and ubiquity for people who don’t have easy access to a corner store.

Two guys who used to work at Google are the not the first people I’d pick to tell the general public what a bodega is, let alone what it means in Spanish. Here again, you’ve compared yourselves to the family-owned business and again say you want to mimic that shopping experience. It seems like you do want to put them out of business. Lastly, who doesn’t have access to the corner store? You haven’t defined that beyond previously citing the examples of people who just don’t want to travel a little farther to get to the store. No, I don’t have a store inside my actual apartment, nor do I have one in my building; therefore, I apparently don’t have access to a corner store? We need clarity where you only offer more comparisons.

Is it possible we didn’t fully understand what the reaction to the name would be?

Yes, clearly. The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined. When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation. We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.

I have no idea what “some survey work” means, or which “branding people” you spoke to. However, I know what “speaking to New Yorkers” probably means. You asked your friends on the East Coast who are also out of touch with reality. This business model seems caters to the more elite classes, like those you’d find in Silicon Valley making upsetting amounts of money. However, you’re marketing yourself as a service to the “everyday person” – this misalignment is what you felt. When you ask someone how they will interpret your product or brand name, ask your potential customer. Considering the social media backlash, I would say those are the only people you didn’t ask.

Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration. We commit to reviewing the feedback and understanding the reactions from today. Our goal is to build a longterm, durable, thoughtful business and we want to make sure our name — among other decisions we make — reflects those values. We’re here to learn and improve and hopefully bring a useful, new retail experience to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist.

Here you’ve summarized all the things wrong with your perspective. I’m happy you’re committed to reviewing the feedback, but you should’ve put out a statement saying just that. With your longform response, you’ve outlined your intention as entrepreneurs. You’ve also categorically equated your business to an existing business model. You’ve said both that you want to be like them, but also give people more convenience than what they provide. If I have less reasons to leave my building, office, dorm, or otherwise to go to my local corner store, how fast is that small business, the one you have so much “admiration” for, going to stay in business?

I’ll give the author one thing though. This letter to the general public did exactly what he intended it to do. It summarized their views on Bodega’s business, name, and how they see it fitting into the world.

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