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?

It seems patently obvious that this rollout was botched from the start precisely becausethey didn’t accurately assess the real on-the-ground situation. They simply didn’t anticipate the charge, and the heady, pie-in-the-sky language McDonald used in the original article – “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” – didn’t help to deflect accusations that the entire point was to drive corner stores out of business. Not content with gentrifying communities, it seemed, Bodega was determined to gentrify an entire retail category to the detriment of the communities that depend on them. They even stole the cat

But this whole affair could have been avoided in a few very simple steps I am frankly baffled nobody thought of.

Change the pitch. Even if you are eventually trying to put the corner store out of business, the initial idea should have been about covering availability gaps more than about replacing a thriving business sector; bodegas and corner stores aren’t part of the culture of every city, and lots of people live in areas where the only place you can get a candy bar or some toilet paper at 1 AM is a gas station. There are lots of mid-sized urban areas – Richmond, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Albany – where street-level Bodega pantries would be a welcome addition, alongside suburban apartment complexes a drive from the nearest supermarket, college dormitories, and office buildings. Focusing on providing a service that is currently unavailable would be preferable to displacing a cultural icon; it might even have made the name less of an issue. 

Change the name. To their credit, McDonald says they did conduct research into the name, speaking to representatives of the Latin American community. “We did some homework,” he said, “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 suspect they didn’t ask about how the name would interact with the company’s stated scope; it smacks of appropriation, like a slap in the face right after announcing you’ll drive someone out of business. 

But they should have. It’s perplexing that nobody in the company put two and two together and saw that this would be a bad look, to take the name of something you’re openly speaking about making obsolete – even appropriating the iconic bodega cat in the process. This is a step beyond charges of gentrification; it even strikes me as openly hostile. Assuming their good faith in claiming that none of this was intended, I’m still stunned this never occurred to them.

Catch the wave before it crests. Sorry about the surfing metaphor. For a story that strikes, in many ways, as a PR puff piece, the initial Fast Company article takes a very sharply critical turn. I have a very hard time believing no questions were asked McDonald and Rajan that indicated where it was going – and no printed rebuttal seems to exist. The charge that they’re trying to wipe out a vital retail sector is in the headline; was nothing asked about that? Did they dismiss it? Ignore it? Whatever happened, it is almost certainly true that the writer telegraphed concerns, but nothing was done to correct them. This is a story they should have been on top of from the get go, but instead, they let it spin wildly out of control. A half-hearted apology two days later is no substitute for actively controlling the narrative.

In so many ways it feels as if Bodega (again, the company) didn’t think through their market thoroughly enough. There are people and locations for which something like this would be welcome, if they’re able to solve the crushing logistical nightmare of keeping 100,000 individual kiosks stocked with specially-curated product selections across the entire United States. Their presumed audience – affluent, techy, young, style-conscious – exists in ready numbers in almost every city in America. If that’s who they’re after, they went about it in exactly the wrong way.

And it’s worse if they’re not. Where this gets tone deaf is that it marries something much of the country deeply resents – tone-deaf, well-off, exceedingly white hipsters – with a concept intimately tied to non-white neighborhoods that it seeks to entirely displace. Thatnarrative, which I suspect to be the truer of the two, is one of displaced jobs, loss community cohesion, and hell, loss of the basic kind of flexibility that familiarity breeds – the way they can let things like “paying full price” slide when you’re a little short, something that can be the difference between eating that day and going hungry.

This is at heart a cautionary tale. More than anything, the story here is one of disconnection: ballsy Silicon Valley engineers looking less for a problem to solve than a million-dollar idea and so cut off from the real on-the-ground situation they’re bounding into. It’s rash, unconsidered, obtusely offensive, and built on a logistical house of cards constructed entirely out of wishful thinking. Even at best, it works well enough to take several years to collapse, well after taking down a vast swathe of the local store competition, and leaving almost nothing of value in its wake.

And it’s far too late to get ahead of that story.

Originally published on HuffPost.