Culturally tone-deaf: Bodega name review

Tribute or appropriation? For startup Bodega, the name evaluation can't be separated from a discussion of the company—and name—roll-out.
Bodega cabinet stocked with snacks
Image courtesy of Bodega

As you’ve no doubt heard, Bodega is a new company with plans to install internet-connected pantry units, stocked with non-perishable convenience store items, in apartments, gyms, and workplaces across the country.

For those not familiar, a bodega is a corner store often found in urban neighborhoods. The word is Spanish (with multiple meanings: cellar, warehouse, pantry), and many are owned and operated by immigrants. Often these stores, which offer a variety of items from food-to-go to toilet paper, are considered neighborhood institutions and social hubs.

When we write name reviews, we like to talk about how the name differentiates the product, fits with or bucks naming conventions, or captures the imagination. But in the case of Bodega, any name evaluation cannot be separated from a discussion of the company—and company name—roll-out. As Elizabeth Segran of Fast Company stated in her piece bluntly titled “Two ex-Googlers want to make bodegas and mom and pop corner stores obsolete,”

Some might bristle at the idea of a Silicon Valley executive appropriating the term ‘bodega’ for a project that could well put lots of immigrants out of work.

You don’t need to be a newshound to know that race and ethnic relations in the U.S. are tense these days. The DACA phaseout, white supremacist violence, and the oft-discussed border wall should give anyone pause about using the name of a beloved Latino institution for their company, especially if it could possibly be asserted that putting said institution out of business was part of the game plan. In the words of Bodega founder Paul McDonald, “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.”

McDonald penned an apology after the criticism hit, stating that the company did “some homework” about the name, “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, even after the online firestorm, the company remains tone-deaf to cultural carpetbagging.

But all of this raises the question: Could the name Bodega be used under any circumstances without being deemed an offensive appropriation? Sure. At Catchword, we have even discussed it a few times. It’s all about context. And culture and current events are critical contexts to consider when naming.

Take Trader Joe’s, whose store brand names include Trader Giotto for pasta, Trader José for Mexican-style beer, Trader Ming for pad thai, and Trader Joe San for soba noodles. Is this tribute, appropriation, or cultural stereotyping?

TJ’s uses words playfully in many of its product names and advertising. The Trader “X” line includes products from a variety of cultures—developed and developing countries, East and West, white/European and people of color. The labels do not include cartoonish images or other stereotyped cues. Given this context, people see the naming practice as playful and fun, not disrespectful or cooptive.*

English-speaking professional namers must be especially careful when looking to other languages. Names derived from Latin or Ancient Greek are generally safe. With living languages, the namer must evaluate the meaning of the word in question and how it is used contextually, alongside whether there is socio-economic disparity between the culture of the source language and that of the client/consumer. And names touching on religious or cultural institutions must be evaluated especially thoughtfully and handled with great respect.

In sum: Always consider whether a name could be seen as appropriating, trivializing, or attempting to profit off another culture.

Let’s be honest. This is tough stuff, even for language and branding experts—and ever-evolving. Not every customer will interpret a brand the way you expect no matter how carefully you have vetted it.

For the folks at Bodega, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to ride out the storm. And the name may be beyond rehabilitation.

*Note that some years later, people took issue with these names as well.

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