Basic Cultural Awareness

Most of us have a default setting of “clueless” when it comes to different view points and this can lead to problems. After all, humans are self-motivated and look after their own interests first.

How else could you explain the decision of two ex-Google employees to create a start-up that essentially comes off as “Gentrification the Company” in “Bodega“. They then proceeded to give one of the most ill-advised interviews in the history of start-ups and brands for Fast Company. Internet outrage was immediate, because of course it was.

The sad part? It’s actually a fairly interesting idea and definitely follows trends regarding automated stocking and an automatic payments system. It even utilizes machine learning to restock shelves based on sales. Brilliant, right?

Yes AND no. (Yes, people can be both right and wrong, deal with it).

Bodega’s founders after all are solving a problem for themselves. They don’t have readily available access to corner stores where they live and the stores they do frequent aren’t optimized to their specific needs. The Bay Area can be a strange place after all. Bodega solves these problems by solving a supply issue in a new way, by being a vending machine in residential & multi-use buildings.

So how does a fairly innocuous, useful product end up getting flamed by the internet? I have a few theories:

1. Not talking to anyone outside your own peer group.

It’s a classic start-up issue. Do we commission a study or do we do a “friends and family” heat check? Often this comes down to money and time. It’s easier to ask friends and family for their opinions and you can stack the deck in your favor fairly easily. Relying on your definition of a “peer group” restricts the number of opinions and insights you can glean about your product or brand. If your product will touch different groups of people? Ask different people what they think and allow them to be honest.

2. Your product isn’t always your brand.

A product mission and definition aren’t necessarily an outward facing message. Language is more important then people realize, this is doubly true when it comes to the outward communication of your mission and brand. What works in a fundraising meeting is entirely different from what works with the press, your customers and the world at large. Calibrating and adjusting your messaging has never been more important.

3. Not assuming the worst.

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It’s not just a hokey saying, it’s actually pretty great advice. The internet is a zero sum environment. You’re either the worst or the best, no middle ground exists anymore. You’re either puppies or Martin Shkreli. Bodega is clearly a decisive product based on the name. It wouldn’t have undergone focus group testing if it wasn’t. Rather then glean what you wanted to see from results, you need to assume that the worst will happen.

4. Focusing on the economic benefit vs. the social one.

Disrupting mom and pop businesses are a natural result of any innovation. Innovation and business have winners and losers. Rather then leaning into the ruthless aspects of your business, why not focus on the environmental, social and utility of your product?

Bodega is yet another example of a company injured by a lack of understanding around their brand’s perception. It won’t be the last. But you can mitigate the issues that you might face as a brand by simply being culturally and socially aware. The presence of different voices in a room are now more important then ever.

You don’t just have a moral obligation to be inclusive, you have an economic one as well.

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