I’m not usually one to react to things written about Zomato in the media. After all, most reports these days seem to be based on hearsay, and often tell only one side of the story through clickbait-tinted glasses. But this particular piece on Scroll touched a nerve, which is why I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m responding. To the author, to the cynics, and to all those who believe everything they read on the internet and Twitter.

The article conveniently ignores the bigger picture, skipping over important facts and doing some great "storytelling" in a way that makes Zomato the devil. This has been happening so often of late, one would think we’d be used to it by now. So I’m just going to go ahead and present my point of view on Mr Pizzati’s little story, one click-baity paragraph at a time.

The clickbait: “As soon as the going got really tough here in the city, so tough that people would miss a meal, the food service website Zomato, together with a group of local restaurants, announced that for every order customers made, it would offer a free extra meal, to be delivered to anyone stranded in the floods.”
The truth: What we were actually doing was buying one meal for Chennai for every meal a customer bought for Chennai. Not for themselves. We did this by partnering with restaurants that offered to cook thousands of meals to be packed and sent to Chennai to be distributed to people stranded in the floods.

The clickbait: “Charity would be free meals for everyone stranded in the flood. Free. Not a way to keep business going in days when business would otherwise be completely halted. This idea sounds like communicating to the public: “Yes, we’re still open and if we don’t give a 50% discount we might get stuck with a lot of unsold produce and food here in our kitchens.”"
The truth: Technically, not making a penny out of these meals for Chennai could qualify as charity. Except that we weren’t doing this as a "charitable contribution". We have a huge platform, used by over 30 million people every month in India alone. What we did was use our platform to enable thousands of people to help, in a way they are already familiar with. Had it been just charity by Zomato, far fewer people would have gotten involved. You do the math on what would be more helpful  –  simply sending over money, or actually leveraging that platform to enable more people to help?

The clickbait: “It all got more suspect considering that Zomato decided to go back on its word one day later. Here’s what one report said: “Zomato halts ‘Meal for Flood relief’ service in Chennai.” The strapline added: “Zomato says it has decided to pause the programme to avoid its restaurant partners from getting overwhelmed.””
The truth: The page where one could buy meals for Chennai went live around noon on December 2. By 9 pm that night, people had bought 55,000 meals for Chennai. Add to that the 55,000 we were also buying, and you get 110,000 meals to be cooked and distributed. By 10 restaurants. That’s 11,000 meals per restaurant. Eleven thousand. That can be pretty darn overwhelming, no? We had to temporarily close the window to ensure the restaurants would be able to keep up, and more importantly, to ensure we’d be able to distribute all those meals. At that point, we had just our Chennai team (20 people) and a couple more volunteers working on packing and distribution, and 110,000 meals is no small number. One tweet that was conveniently left out of the article was this one:

The clickbait: “However, the issue isn’t that the company is making money directly, but it is getting free publicity during a calamity by attracting attention while selling its products at 50%. Selling it, not donating it to people in need, in what you might call “a captive market.””
The truth: See earlier point (and tweet) about us not making a penny off it. Our restaurant partners were making food at a loss, we were matching every donation for quite a bit, and people had a choice to buy, or to not buy a donation for Chennai. And they bought. Not for themselves, no, but for people who needed it in Chennai. As for free publicity? Mobilising that many people to help requires noise to create awareness. We didn’t have a month to think about this and craft an elaborate media/outreach plan to subtly communicate the fact that one could help. We needed to take immediate action, and we did. We didn’t send a press release out for this, but used our social media presence to spread the word as far as possible instead. Thousands of people got behind us with RTs and shares. All for a good cause.

The number of requests to reopen the window to buy meals for Chennai was as overwhelming as it was heartwarming. So we did reopen the donation window, because of two key factors: more restaurants had offered to help with the meals, and we had the personnel support of the NDRF for distribution.

The difference was that this time, we wouldn’t be able to match the number of meals people bought. We don’t have the financial means to do that, and we were open about it:

And people got it :-)

People came forward in support, and another 72,000 meals were bought for Chennai. In the meantime, our team, along with volunteers on the ground, kept the distribution of meals and supplies going. Our team in Bangalore also got involved to help with packing food, and a truck loaded with meals arrived from Bangalore that evening (nobody knows that we dropped the revenue targets for the Bangalore team to help them do this well). Help extended beyond just food to include water, clothes, and even raw cooking material to areas where people were able to cook. In short, there was better capacity across the board to make this work.

Kunal Shah, founder of FreeCharge, kind of summed things up in this public post on his Facebook wall:
Last time we at FreeCharge had helped Nepal victims by running a missed call campaign, some people tagged it as a marketing gimmick. This time we quietly recharged for lakhs of customers from chennai and are asked why are we not doing anything. I guess there is no right “right way” but to keep doing right things.

A note to the author

Dear Mr Pizzati, I have to admit I’m still not entirely sure what you really expected us to do differently. Cut a cheque and send it over? What I do know in my heart  –  and I know I speak for my colleagues and thousands of generous souls when I say this  – is that we did something good. Because we wanted to help, and because we had the means to.

Cynicism in general saddens me, but hey, you’re entitled to voice yours, and nobody can take that away from you. Just please, please make sure you live up to the responsibility that comes with being in the media business. Neither your cynicism, nor anything anyone else says about us, will stop us (Zomato) from doing something like this again in the future if it’s needed. We just don’t want it to discourage other good people who might be a little less resolute (and believe everything they read on the internet and Twitter).

Carlo Pizzati responds:
It is commendable that a product manager who works for one of the companies discussed in the analysis published on Scroll would attempt to defend the people who pay his salary. I would be surprised to the contrary and I find his attempt understandable.

Unfortunately, this is only an emotional response from an employee who doesn’t provide any factual contradiction to my analysis. It is a common marketing sales promotion to transform a 50% discount into a BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) written about in any average marketing and sales textbook. The rest of the argument is repeating a common sing-a-song which is easy to find on the Internet and in social media, often disseminated by people who are employees of companies and admit it, some who are and don’t admit it, some who are hired to troll, social media managers who work on reputation control. This is all understandable. But unfortunately it doesn’t counter with any real or new facts the argument exposed in the article.

As far as the wide manipulation of the emotion of “positive thinking”, I’ve written a new analysis for Scroll about that, and you can find my answer here.