Startup ‘Bodega’ Has Angered Fans of Actual Bodegas. Can It Recover?

While its messaging was wrong-headed, it likely still has hope

This startup had a wobbly start.

What if you debuted a brand and everyone from two of the country’s most important cities hated on you on Day One? Well, Bodega’s founders are about to find out.

Social media users from New York and Los Angeles are digitally protesting the launch of Bodega, a startup rolling out 50 “bodegas”—which are, essentially, vending machines with toiletries and snacks—across the West Coast today. After Fast Company published a piece called “Two Ex-Googlers Want to Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete” about the new company, folks took to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn with a ferocity not often seen.

“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,” co-founder Paul McDonald told Fast Company.

According to the article, Bodega co-founders McDonald and Ashwath Rajan have secured funding from First Round Capital, Forerunner Ventures and other investors. Now, they might want to secure a damage-control PR firm.

“They went after a social institution when they probably were thinking more about giving investors an attractive value proposition than anything else,” said Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing who has consulted brands like FreshDirect. “People have childhood memories of going to mom-and-pop stores in their neighborhoods. I just wonder if they thought they could get away with it because they are a couple of ex-Google people.”

The wrong-headedness is obvious in the brand messaging, Gabor stated, adding that instead of pushing the value proposition the startup will offer consumers, its founders essentially put out a narrative that they are going to kill off corner stores. Indeed, they could have never mentioned changing the retail landscape while highlighting the convenience of their machines.

Instead, “Bodega” has been trending nationally on Twitter all day. If nothing else, the development shows how much Gotham citizens and Angelinos love their corner stores that often feature a lazy cat hanging around a 10-cent bubblegum container or cooling off atop the ice-cream freezer. So when Bodega included a feline in its logo, many social media users were besides themselves.

Will Bodega’s “obsolete” message mean dark days for its young brand? Not so fast, said industry players, who cited recent examples like Uber and United as companies that have weathered recent social storms.

“Social Media is the crucible for public opinion on any new tech or service—especially one that disrupts traditional models and attempts to launch a new category,” said Ken Kraemer, CEO at agency Deep Focus. “But it is rarely the final word on it. Just ask Uber. Social, analyzed completely and in context, can help evaluate an offering. But at face value, it’s unlikely that you can tell if the negative buzz is really significant. For a new tech or service like this, any buzz can be good buzz, as consumers will love or hate Bodega in the long term based on the service and convenience it offers them personally, not on social buzz.”

Gil Eyal, CEO of HYPRBrands, took it a step further—there’s no such thing as bad press.

“Social media is crawling with people looking for an opportunity to get offended and some might wonder whether there’s a marketing opportunity there,” he explained. “So what if they say bad things about you? At least now they’ll know your name. And if you’re lucky, there’s someone who will have a different opinion and jump in to defend you.”

Gabor also noted that Bodega’s founders chose a good brand for a company that needs to market to both businesses and consumers.

Yet whether it will suffer badly from its blunder out of the gate, she said, “Only time will tell.”

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