Bodega: When Branding Goes Bad

Bodega: When Branding Goes Bad

You may remember, perhaps, “Peeple,” a failed social app originally intended to be “Yelp for people,” letting you rate and rank the folks you run into in your everyday life. The creepy and borderline dystopian implications of this were apparent to literally everyone outside the company, and the announcement was met with immediate derision. Nobody wants to live in a world where basic human interactions are given scores that can be tracked, calculated, and treated as the numerical value of the person itself. That’s a solution in search of a problem.

From Peeple to the infamous “tech bros” who accidentally dreamed up public transitwhile discussing ways to make Lyft more efficient, there is a very strong narrative that the people out there creating startups and participating in the app economy are so privileged, so cut off from the real world, that they barely know what’s happening in it. Enter, last week, exhibit ten-million: Bodega, the app that seems to be expressly intended to drive the corner store into extinction.

This story has been told, retold, dissected, re-dissected, and re-re-dissected a million times over the past week, so let’s recap it only briefly: a couple of ex-Googlers have developed a “convenience store app” connected to small pantries stocked with items like Advil and toilet paper. You’d open it with the app, take what you want (of a limited selection), while the pantry’s built-in camera monitors your purchases and charges you via the app. The idea is to create something simple, easy to use, and easy to access.

The problem, of course, is that we already have something simple, easy to use, and easy to access: actual, literal, brick-and-mortar bodegas. Bodegas are cultural institutions in places like New York and Los Angeles, important parts of local infrastructure and society as thick on the ground as taxicabs. It isn’t immediately clear what Bodega (the app) has to offer that makes it a meaningful improvement over real-life corner stores. To add insult to injury, the article that stirred up all this trouble explicitly claims that the aim is to make corner stores obsolete. While the company’s cofounders Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan have denied that this was ever the intent, it quickly became the entire basis of the story. And the question still floats in the air: what problem is Bodega even trying to solve?

Politics as PR: Donald Trump and the Lessons of Katrina

Politics as PR: Donald Trump and the Lessons of Katrina

In television, everything is appearances.

This is ancient knowledge, something publicists have been wielding since the earliest days of the silver screen. You can use forced perspective to make a miniature appear larger. You build moments from hours of footage and dozens of distinct shots. You lower the lights or raise them. You add dramatic music. It’s a festival of performance and artifice, and that’s something Donald Trump has always done very well. He’s a master of appearances, maximizing his influence by maximizing the number of eyes on him. He rode this wave of attention from the set of The Apprentice to the West Wing.

He has, however, proven less adept at translating this style into an effective presidency, with few examples as pertinent as his faceplanting response to Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Houston. Once regarded as an expert in image manipulation, we’re increasingly learning his brash, caution-to-the-wind style is much more the result of thoughtlessness than any defined strategy.

Much like with regard to Charlottesville, he’s had to redo his response from square one after botching it the first time, attempting to stem the bleeding caused by his self-congratulatory first visit to storm-devastated parts of the region. The Atlantic calls it an“empathy deficit,” and while that is certainly true, it’s actually a much bigger problem than that: the president understands television, but doesn’t understand the presidency. Or at least the power and imagery of it.

I’ve talked at length about Trump’s inability to contain bad press and how markedly it contrasts with his pre-inauguration deftness at deflecting it. Both that phenomenon and what I’m discussing in this article come from the same place: he doesn’t seem to really grasp the situation he’s in, how the way people are looking at him has changed. A man long used to playing by his own rules has stepped into a 228-year-old institution with as many years of tradition and public expectation behind it, and is less chafing under the constraints of it than failing to notice them at all, and then getting angry when people point them out.

Politics as PR: How Do You Salvage a President?

Politics as PR: How Do You Salvage a President?

It took Donald Trump forty-eight hours to condemn white supremacists, and less than half that time to backtrack. Whatever uncertainty we may have had about the president’s views regarding what went down in Charlottesville this past weekend ought to have been settled, as he continues to prove he doesn’t warrant the benefit of the doubt.

I need not remind you of “what went down in Charlottesville,” but for the sake of hammering home the wild inappropriateness of President Trump’s response, let’s refresh: the largest white supremacist rally in the United States literally in decades turned violent when a member of a white supremacist group decided to drive through a crowd of protestors at high speed in a deliberate act of terrorism, killing one and injuring thirty. Crowds chanting “Jews will not replace us” and highly charged slurs against LGBT people marched through the streets with tiki torches. Several counter-protestors suffered beatings.

And yet. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now,” Trump said, defending his initial statement, which had been met with praise and gratitude from literal card-carrying members of the KKK.

The president of the United States walked back his criticism of white supremacists, or at least the suggestion that both sides were not, somehow, equally at fault. His desperate desire to implicate all sides seems to be drawn from an instinctive understanding that the Nazis marching in the streets are on his side; his supposed “alt-left” boogeyman is nonexistent. In the same way he refused to disavow white supremacist support during the primary process, he has gone out of his way to avoid clearly condemning far-right extremism now. By all accounts, he didn’t have any interest in making the second statement at all, and re-upped on his initial statement at the earliest opportunity.

Why Globalization Still Matters In The Age of Trump

Why Globalization Still Matters In The Age of Trump

We keep hearing it from the President’s Twitter account: “Make America great again! America first!” 

The phrases are well-worn at this point, having been pounded into our heads since the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump first announced his candidacy in a speech replete with protectionist dogwhistles. At their core? A zero-sum vision of the world where every winner assumes the existence of loser, where companies ought to be punished for acting internationally instead of parochially, where our horizons ought to grow narrower and narrower with time.

It’s a situation we all need to cope with; the world has changed in ways very few people would have imagined just a year ago. Decade after decade of internationalization, following from the end of the Second World War, feels as though it’s ground to a halt, and the world feels very different than it did only a year ago. The first nativist shock to hit the West – the unexpected success of Brexit in 2016 – was rapidly followed by the accession of Donald Trump, of all people, to the most powerful office in the world, where protectionism and a go-it-alone mentality have become the norm (insofar as norms still exist in 2017). In such an environment, the souring of public sentiment against globalization cuts both left and right, though for wildly different reasons, and a retreat from the global marketplace is understandable, perhaps even easy.

But that’s exactly the wrong approach; globalization may be slowing, but it hasn’t quite ground to a halt. Popular attitudes would have you believe that all companies were operating on massive international scales, moving jobs and money across borders with utter ease; popular attitudes would also have you believe that our latter-day retreat from the world stage means that globalization is over. In fact, neither is true; not even the Great Depression shuttered international trade. A bump in the road is not the same as slamming on the breaks, and while we’ve learned – the hard way – that the trajectory of world history does not tend inexorably toward flat, accessible global markets, we are still moving in that direction, all things considered.

Food With Integrity: How Chipotle Can Escape a Mess of Its Own Making

Food With Integrity: How Chipotle Can Escape a Mess of Its Own Making

Chipotle has a problem as big as its famous overstuffed, lovingly-wrapped burritos.

In the wake of two years of negative headlines – dating back to the E. coli scare of 2015 that forced the company to stop selling pork products for months, and continuing on from incident to incident right through to a norovirus outbreak just last week – Chipotle is facing a massive brand crisis never before seen in the young company’s history, capping more than a decade of rapid expansion, high profitability, and profound customer loyalty with a dramatic fall back to Earth. It is almost Shakespearean that a company that built its entire public image around having fresh, healthy food – “Food with Integrity” was the slogan – would be brought low by a seemingly unstoppable barrage of health scares; no man born of woman could slay Macbeth, and Chipotle serves food made from only the best ingredients. But eventually, Birnam Wood will come to Dunsinane. It always does. Pride goeth etc. etc.

The story of Chipotle, up until the first E. coli outbreak, was one of triumph upon triumph. The chain burst out of Denver, Colorado and built a national empire within a few short years, to the point that Chipotles are as thick on the ground in Manhattan as Starbucks. With a delicious product, a unique aesthetic, and a strong social message that made its target crowd feel good about eating there over more traditional fast food, Chipotle pioneered the fast casual paradigm we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly, Chipotle was awash with cash, publicity, and goodwill, and used that to embark on massive growth, expanding from five-hundred restaurants in 2005 to over two-thousand – with almost five-hundred having opened in the last two years.