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Email Marketing Disaster: Boloco Burritos in a PR Storm

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Boloco, a Boston-based burrito chain, recently received some negative attention from their weather-based email marketing campaigns. Boloco utilized their subscriber base to alert customers that the store was open during recent 2012-2013 storms.

Email Marketing Disaster: Boloco Burritos in a PR Storm

Hurricane Sandy hit New England in late October 2012, and Boloco sent an email to inform their customers that they would remain open for business, along with providing discounts for those who wished to “brave the storm”. The email received immediate backlash from customers over social media, email, and other channels, because customers believed the weather situation to grave to warrant keeping a store open.

Email Marketing Disaster: Boloco Burritos in a PR Storm

The email left me feeling a small amount of contempt for Boloco. Even though they were providing a useful service, they were exploiting the situation. It was surprising that when the Governor was on the brink of declaring a State of Emergency, emails were being sent about burritos.

Email Marketing Disaster: Boloco Burritos in a PR Storm

Well, as expected, it didn’t “blow over” so well…(hurricane humor)

Less than two hours thereafter, another email was sent with the subject “A Sincere Apology (again) from Boloco re: Hurricane Sandy”. As it turns out, people were very concerned about how Boloco was treating their employees despite the statement made in the fine print of the email ensuring their staff member’s safety (see above). In order to be funny, I suppose, the apology email included some of the hate mail they received in the period of an hour:

  • “WTF are you bragging about keeping your stores open for? T is closing at 2, let your employees go home! Bad form.”
  • “Let your employees go home! You are ridiculous! I wouldn’t eat there if I was starving, if that’s the way you treat your employees!”
  • “That’s insane. Keep your employees safe. That makes burritos taste better.”
  • “Guess what Boloco – there’s no one in town because most companies care for their employees and told them to stay home.
  • “These “yes, we’re open” emails are starting to make you all look like dirtbags.”
  • “What are you a bunch of idiots!!!!! Not only are you putting the lives of your staff at risk, you are now trying to get customers to come in and put their lives at risk. For what????? A couple dollars. You have got to be the biggest bunch of a**holes I’ve ever heard of…”
  • “Well, smarten up, and close! No point in putting employees at risk…”
  • “I’d hate for your employees to have to sleep in the booths in their respective restaurants. Please, please send them home.”

The full apology response from Boloco’s CEO and Co-Founder John Pepper can be read here.

It is generally considered a good public relations practice to address negative feedback, rather than ignoring it, but Boloco went a little too far and actually drew more attention to itself by including hate responses in its follow-up email.

To be honest, although I thought the original email was a bit out-of-place, I did not immediately think the email was insulting. However, once I read what other people were saying on the topic, I found myself agreeing. I went from thinking the email campaign was slightly off-color, to flat-out wrong.

Boloco makes the same mistake all over again: blizzard edition

More recently (February 2013), winter storm Nemo strikes Boston covering it in snow. Boloco sends another email to its customers with the subject line “Braving Nemo”.

Not again!

The email addressed the incident that occurred during Hurricane Sandy:

“Given our “history” with declaring modified hours for storms in Boston, we thought it was important to note that NONE of our team members are required to work today. We mean it. And, any team member who works after the public transportation closes in Boston will be given a stipend to take a cab home.”

Understanding that Nemo was probably not going to be nearly as dangerous as Hurricane Sandy, especially considering most Bostonians can walk to their nearest Boloco, I was shocked that they sent another weather-related email, but understood that they wanted to allow their customers that they would be open. They even addressed any potential issues in this email. All in all, it didn’t look like it wound turn out too badly.

A few hours later, and after the Governor of Massachusetts had banned driving on the roads after 4pm (causing a problem with giving a cab stipend to employees), Boloco sends a follow-up email like last time. Having received hate mail again (Bostonians are relentless), Boloco was forced to send another apology email. The email much like the last one, included examples of the responses they received:

  • “I find it appalling that a business would be so selfish when the governor and mayor are telling everyone to stay indoors and off the roads. I really like boloco’s food offerings, but I won’t be giving your company my business anymore. This makes me sick…2 storms in a row.”
  • “Very greedy company. I’m not visiting Bolocco ever again.”

Email Marketing Disaster: Boloco Burritos in a PR Storm

Also check out the angry discussion on Boloco’s Facebook page that was included in the Nemo apology email.

A big problem with the Boloco emails is that they included actual quotes from the hate mail they received, including those from customers vowing to never visit the chain again. The quotes opened up a can of worms for themselves, subjecting readers to confirmation bias (the “tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses”). Including the quotes may have caused some readers that were already on the fence of thinking that the emails were distasteful, to actually perceive them this way. This is especially true for the email sent during winter storm Nemo, as there would have been nothing to bias them other than their own memories.

Having experienced such negative feedback from the weather-related email campaign they ran during the hurricane, Boloco should not have attempted it a second time. The only difference between the two email campaigns was that the more recent one called attention to the catastrophe that their original effort caused. Even if one is arguing that winter storm Nemo was less dangerous than Hurricane Sandy, Boloco did damage by reminding its subscribers of the earlier incident.

I believe the best course of action would have been to send a generic promotional email (nothing mentioning weather or openings at all). By sending a more generic email, Boloco would bring attention to itself without setting itself up for negative internet attention. People would know Boloco is open by walking nearby, making phone call inquiries, or by word-of-mouth. Although they may receive less business during the days of the storm, they would do less damage to their brand identity, resulting in more future sales.

Update (2/17/2013): Reader @andinarvaez has relayed to me that groupthink is probably more at play than confirmation bias. Sounds correct to me. Thanks for the feedback.

Update (3/19/2013): Boloco sends yet another weather-themed email out with the subject “Snomigosh…get a FREE MINI BURRITO!”. In this instance, I think they finally sent a good email (pertaining to weather). The below quote gives you a good sense of how they went about it this time:

Snoloco:
a celebration reserved for Boloco’s most loyal fans who brave the snow, winds, blustery cold, and slushy sidewalks in search of inspired burritos, bowls, smoothies & shakes.
By definition, yesterday’s (and today’s) New England storm is not a “technical” blizzard…
but that doesn’t stop us from calling a Snoloco Day!

This time the email was more tastefully written, the snow storm was very different in magnitude compared to the previous time, and the email was sent the day after instead of before or after the storm. Boloco, you are to be commended for a good email campaign.

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  1. I agree 100%. I am on this email list and received both of these emails as they were sent. Perhaps I am not as sensitive to workers’ rights, but I honestly didn’t worry about how the staff would get home (as long as the subways were working I thought it was fine). However, I saw all of these nasty comments, that Boloco emailed out to all of us, and I was colored by other people’s hatemail. I couldn’t believe they sent MORE quotes during this past blizzard!

  2. Thanks for including us in your post. We are often misunderstood. We understand the ire people felt, and apologized to those who felt that way. In all honesty, it’s incredible how many bars and fine dining restaurants (and even McDonald’s) stayed open and profited handsomely from doing so. We try to be very transparent with our guests, to a fault, because we want people to see the “real deal”. We don’t want to do generic emails or promotions. We like calling it like it is. We apologize to those who disagree, at times publicly, but we do a lot more thanking and appreciating to those who like the transparency. While not always successful, we go way above and beyond to positively impact the lives and futures of our people. Most of our people will vouch for it all day long, and communication about their options during all storms was crystal clear and re clarified over and over again.
    I’m sorry we caused you to look at us as you describe. Hopefully in time we might earn your trust back.
    Best
    John Pepper
    PS. I shared your post on twitter. It’s valuable for others to see. It’s part of our strategy of total transparency.

    • Thanks for the tweet and the clarification. Although I’m a New Yorker, I was introduced to your restaurant thought my girlfriend who lives in Boston. I know she frequents the chain often. We were both shocked that Boloco received such hate mail because we both considered the emails rather benign. They were honestly funny, which was probably what your were going for. I don’t know if I would have repeated the weather themed email the second time, considering the strong response some of your customers had to the first one.

      I’m still a fan of your summer burrito.

      -Paul

  3. Great story. Honestly, I am shocked they tried it a second time. It is already a sensitive topic, they had experienced ill will previously. Leave it alone.