How startups can avoid Bodega’s PR disaster

Tyler Perry
The newly launched startup’s insensitivity hit some pretty tender nerves during a time when cultural and societal tensions are high.

Oh, Bodega.

The newly launched startup’s insensitivity hit some pretty tender nerves during a time when cultural and societal tensions are high.

The first article published about Bodega read almost like a Silicon Valley parody. It highlights a few things people feel is wrong with the tech community right now; Bodega comes across as a tone-deaf company that got the thumbs-up from some of the Valley’s most respected investors for a seemingly absurd idea with a culturally insensitive name. It represents a confounding and out-of-touch approach to disruption; if you missed the headline, it’s “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.”

Just a few hours after launching, Bodega received a lashing on Twitter, and the headlines came to resemble this one from The Washington Post: “Bodega, an ‘unmanned pantry box,’ has already become America’s most hated start-up.”

I haven’t seen such a negative reaction to a startup since Color launched in 2011. It also reminds me of the immediate response to  Venmo’s “Lucas” ad campaign; the tech media in particular recoiled at the seemingly random, “weirdo” ads plastered all over New York City’s subways. While we weren’t involved in the first situation, we were brought in to manage the fallout from the second as the anger quotient was high. This Fast Company exclusive shed light on the story behind the ads and turned the tides.

I don’t think Bodega’s problems can be solved by a thoughtfully placed story.

My hunch is that this brand and its launch strategy were created in a vacuum -- I’d be surprised if diverse thinking went into the strategy or communications.

Consider this excerpt from the Fast Company article:

I asked McDonald point-blank about whether he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive. Not really. “I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no’. It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

Note: If you think you need to survey an ethnic group to see if your chosen name will be perceived as offensive, just choose another name.

So, where can the Bodega team go from here?

The first step in a crisis is to act quickly and transparently. Bodega responded with a blog post explaining their intentions and addressing the biggest critiques they received after launching. It’s a start; acknowledging that “it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people,” but the text that precedes it still reads as tone-deaf and entitled:

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.

Innuendos are a tough horse to bet on in business; remember Airbnb’s logo fiasco? Given today’s climate and the work we need to do to establish a better way to relate to each other as a society, I would just avoid them. Drop a vowel if you are feeling spicy, but leave out any potential offensive content.

I’d recommend the company follow up with action -- by changing its name immediately and taking full responsibility for the misstep. While they’re at it, I’d suggest changing the logo; bodega cats everywhere are disgusted.

Beyond branding, I’d counsel the company to reevaluate its narrative. It would benefit from positioning itself not as a millennial’s corner store, but as a more convenient form of buying basic goods. If the product really is a smart vending machine, don’t be afraid to call it that. It’s better to sound frivolous than to be flat-out offensive or come across as insincere.

Most importantly, I’d recommend the company evaluate its executive team and advisors. If there is not a diverse group of people around you -- in race, gender, sexual orientation, age -- then change that.

In today’s media climate, brands -- and particularly tech startups -- must be sensitive to the image they’re projecting and how their message could be received in the least-generous interpretation. Businesses that hope to avoid a situation like Bodega’s can involve marketing and communications professionals early on and ensure diverse voices have a seat at the table. This can provide a broader perspective of how the company and product will be received by the world -- not just a small sliver of Silicon Valley.