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Lessons in Medical Marketing from a Tech Startup Disaster


Practice owners and physicians should heed the lessons of Bodega, a startup company that got universally ripped on for bad branding.

Welcome to Editor's Corner. Here, the editors of Physicians Practice will share their thoughts on the happenings in healthcare and look at the industry from a broader viewpoint.


You always need a marketing or a branding person if you're trying to start a new practice or are involved with a startup of any kind. Without someone to examine how your brand will appear in the public eye, you'll end up like Bodega. 

What is Bodega? Let's backtrack. Earlier this week, Fast Company, an entrepreneur-focused publication, released an interview with the founders of a company called Bodega. The two guys who used to work at Google explained their concept in the interview and incurred the wrath of the internet.

The concept is putting five-foot pantry boxes filled with perishable items you'd find at a bodega or corner store in common spaces, like dorm rooms, gyms, office buildings, etc. Here's how Fast Company described the venture:

"An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the 'store.'"

The box would be refreshed based on data analyzing people's buying habits in that particular location. People - I guess they actually have to have one person working this operation - would then restock the boxes when certain items run out. The article was filled with bold proclamations from the two owners about their plans to run "centralized shopping locations" - or as we call them more commonly, stores - out of business.

The idea is essentially a glorified vending machine or a minibar. It loses site of what makes bodegas and corner stores so vital: non-perishable items.

Tech companies thinking they're breaking ground by creating a new vending machine is the sort of thing you can laugh at from time to time. Silicon Valley is filled with people who wrongly think they have a great idea that's already been done and doesn't need changing. But a light mocking of this concept is not what happened when the story hit Twitter and other social media platforms.

What happened was a ton of outrage directed at the company, its founders, and the idea itself. Why? Well for one, the name. By using the term bodega, a Latin American term used to describe corner stores that pop up across mostly East Coast urban areas, the Bodega founders pissed off a ton of people.

Just take a look at what happens when you search "bodega" in Twitter.

It's hard to know what these guys were thinking when they named this company Bodega. Not only is it obnoxious to name something after the very thing you are trying to replace, but it's insensitive to the people whose lives are centered around the bodega.

What's worse is the CEO, Paul McDonald, even boldly proclaimed that the name was OK. Here's what he said:

"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."

Later, after the backlash, he walked back those comments and admitted he didn't realize the reaction to the name and how insensitive it came across. It's hard to imagine being that dense about something, but I guess ignorance comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. 

The other thing that Bodega did was go after a beloved institution directly. If you've ever lived in New York, you know that bodegas have a special place in people's hearts. It's not something you should try go after directly. Nor should you try to go after "mom-and-pop shops." When I read the initial tweet that said, "Two ex-Googlers want to make bodegas and mom-and-pop corner stores obsolete," I knew trouble was headed their way. I honestly didn't think it would get as bad as it did, when "Bodega" was the top trending topic on Twitter, but never underestimate the power of the angry internet mob.

(To be fair, the two guys never implicated they were directly going after those institutions – but it's basically implied when they say they want to get rid of "centralized shopping locations.")

The moral of the story for physicians, practice owners, and anyone trying to start a new business is pretty obvious. You may think your idea of a practice, or your idea for an app, or your idea for anything is bulletproof, but you always need a marketing guru to give their seal of approval. You need someone to understand the outside perspective of what you are selling. I thought Chrissy Farr of CNBC asked an appropriate question:

Is it a lack of marketers at start-ups that is resulting in these dumb branding decisions? Or are the marketers not being listened to?

- Christina Farr (@chrissyfarr) September 13, 2017

In the case of Bodega, you have to wonder. Marketers are the people who will know how your practice/app/product is presented to the public and they'll know when your idea is going to land you trending on Twitter for the wrong reasons. They also know how to build your business up in the eyes of the public.

Never forget that and always make sure you have the right people working for you.

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