7-Eleven has raised some interesting brand questions with its current promotion to mod a handful of its stores to look like the hilarious “Kwik-E-Mart” from The Simpsons. Kwik-E-Mart is a biting lampoon of 7-Eleven itself. Thus, we have one brand embracing its opposite. What kind of brand strategy is this? Will it work?
In this post I ask a lot of questions, probe a few answers, and toss out some impressions, mainly so I can document the many brand issues (identity, mission, strategy, innovation, customer creation) that this brand mashup raises. I haven’t had time to structure this as tightly as I’d like, so forgive me if I bounce around a bit.
Can a brand mashup advance the brand?
One might ask: How can 7-Eleven advance its brand, and its customers, by symbolically joining with Kwik-E-Mart, which satirically undercuts what 7-Eleven stands for? Kwik-E-Mart is the anti-brand of 7-Eleven. In this brand mashup, where does one brand stop, and the other begin? In other words, where does 7-Eleven draw the line between the two brands, and the two sets of customers? This is critical, because the Kwik-E-Mart customers are laughable.
These are not academic questions. If 7-Eleven can’t define the difference between itself and its brand nemesis, it risks confusing its brand identity. In turn, this can reduce its options for brand growth, and open doors for competitors.
Moving the brand in the wrong direction?
Maybe my identity triggers are set too fine, but I sense this promo as being strategically limiting for the 7-Eleven brand. Yes, the promo will build some buzz. Yes, it will attract visitors, and maybe customers. And yes, it will be declared a rousing success as “brand theater,” “art imitates life,” “the brand as a stage,” etc. But, in spite of all this, it threatens to sink the brand into its biggest weakness, and that—in the long term—can’t bode well for 7-Eleven.
First: the marketing logic
Let’s first visit the marketing logic behind the promotion. As the hard-nosed marketing voice in the back of my mind might say: “No need to worry; this is marketing 101. It’s just a limited tie-in to an upcoming Simpsons movie. It will leverage the movie pub to punch up 7-Eleven sales. There’s nothing deep or symbolic or confusing about it. Brand is not an issue. It’s just fun, in a fun context. Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a convenience store. No one mistakes it for Harvard or Whole Foods. Customers whip in for beer, cigs and snacks. Inside, the brand experience is somewhere between a Slim Jim and a Big Gulp. The aisles are meant to be the apotheosis of low-brow brands, the antimatter of nutrition facts. That’s the 7-Eleven formula, perfected over decades. It brings in the dough, and its customers love it.”
That marketing voice continues: “Moreover, the funny Kwik-E-Mart scenes on The Simpsons are the best (free) advertising 7-Eleven can get. They validate the brand in fictional space—which for most 7-Eleven customers is no different than real space. In truth, 7-Eleven is only giving its customers what they want: their own stage touched by fame and celebrity. Visiting a make-believe Kwik-E-Mart is like getting a mini Disney World every time you bust in for a Big Bite.
“Finally, most 7-Eleven customers think the Kwik-E-Mart dress-ups are totally cool. So how can this be ‘bad’ for 7-Eleven?”
God, I hate that voice. It doesn’t yet understand that brands run on brand logic, not marketing logic. More on this below.
What does Kwik-E-Mart add to 7-Eleven?
The staged Kwik-E-Mart’s will certainly attract curiosity seekers. People who never patronize 7-Eleven might want to see a full-size fake Chief Wiggum, and maybe contemplate the bowels of a real-life Squishee.
From the news article cited above:
The Fox/7-Eleven deal is an example of a practice called reverse product placement. Instead of just putting products prominently in a movie or TV show, fake goods move from the screen to reality.
Maybe—or maybe not. What if 7-Eleven is not importing “fake goods from the screen to reality” but is instead importing the reality of satire into the live world of 7-Eleven retail, where that satire cuts to the bone? How will that build the 7-Eleven brand, other than to confirm its essence as the butt of a 15-year joke?
The Simpsons as mischievous mascots
Are the Kwik-E-Mart facades intended to persuade us that The Simpsons characters are now the endorsers of 7-Eleven, and not its satiric tormentors, thus turning reality on its head and making the satire “go away?” In other words, can the Kwik-E-Mart promos regenerate Bart, Homer and crew as playful decoration and lovable sprites, without their bite and edge? Can it reincarnate them as mischievous mascots, reducing them to a form of “packaging?” That may be part of the plan, but if so it may lead to a deeper brand problem.
Lowering customers to the Kwik-E-Mart level?
In Springfield, the usual customers of Kwik-E-Mart are dimwits and the hopelessly alienated. When 7-Eleven brings Kwik-E-Mart to life, as an alter ego of its brand, where does it draw the line between Kwik-E-Mart and 7-Eleven customers? Or is it really erasing that line?
In my view, that line has to be drawn because Kwik-E-Mart is the home of low-performance customers. Generally, they’re losers. They pinball through life and return little benefit to the brand. They’re at the bottom of the brand chain. If these same customers are the intended hard core base of 7-Eleven, then the 7-Eleven brand is forfeiting growth into attractive markets beyond that base. In effect, 7-Eleven is saying to the world: “We have seen our future, and it’s Kwik-E-Mart. Their customers are our customers.”