The Smart Mart

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. OK, go ahead and laugh at the unpronounceable foreign name of the long-suffering owner of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart. On The Simpsons, a show so wickedly funny and beloved that it has become a national storehouse for humor, Apu personifies every stereotype of an Indian immigrant convenience store worker: He came here illegally; works 23 hours a day; has an arranged marriage and 10 kids; is freakishly overqualified for his job; and he rips off customers.

In the biggest running joke on the show, though, Apu also gets held up a lot. “I have been shot eight times this year!” he says in a South Asian accent that has its own unchained melody. “And as a result, I almost missed work!”

It’s obvious to all that Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening based the unappetizing-to-foul Kwik-E-Mart on 7-Eleven, right down to its signature drink, the Squishee. The irony is that 7-Eleven should thank heaven for it. And in a genius move, it’s doing just that: In one of the most innovative marketing campaigns ever created, the convenience store chain is partnering with 20th Century Fox to promote The Simpsons Movie, to be released July 27.

Forget the X-Men and Spidey cups—that’s kids’ stuff. Talk about your unique brand experience, or Extreme Homer Makeover. Starting last week, 12 7-Eleven stores in major U.S. cities and one in Canada were transformed into Kwik-E-Marts, complete with life-size figures of the characters. (Marge is about seven feet tall, with at least a foot-and-a-half of blue hair.) For sale are such products as Buzz cola, Krusty-Os cereal and Sprinklish doughnuts, the pink kind that Homer favors in between naps at the nuclear reactor. (6,400 other stores carry some of the proprietary products.) The result is the very definition of a modern experiential campaign, including the hiring of its creator, Fresh Works, a virtual agency from Omnicom, with work led by Tracy Locke in Dallas.

This is more than a “reverse product placement”—which 7-Eleven has been calling the promotion in press releases. This is a total takeover. Along the way, the campaign manages to reverse most of the old 7-Eleven stereotypes, transforming the convenience store from its image of a sometimes dangerous, usually dirty emergency stop in the middle of nowhere, into an alluring amusement park and clever destination event, complete with products that will live on as collectors’ items.

Though it’s brave for the chain to attach itself to a show that slams it every chance it gets, it’s not as risky as it seems. 7-Eleven customers are Simpsons’ fans and vice versa. The real added benefit will come from customers who would never have stepped foot in the place before, but are now coming to stock up on Buzz and Krusty-Os.

A stroll through the transformed Times Square store on opening day showed a vast number of new customers, all of whom seemed to have achieved retail nirvana. Greeted with such pitch-perfect signage as “These things won’t be gone until you buy ’em” and “Today’s pastries at tomorrow’s prices,” the off-the-street public walked around beaming.

The Simpson-related products are real—the cereal, for instance, which reads, “The best you can expect from a clown” on the box, is made for the chain by the Malt-O-Meal Company—and there’s also a comic book based on Bart’s favorite superhero, Radioactive Man, for sale along with Homer bobbleheads and T-shirts.

If the strategy was to change perceptions about the 7-Eleven brand, it seems to be working. More than one customer I interviewed said now that they saw what 7-Eleven had to offer, they’d be coming back regularly, if only for coffee and newspapers.

Another bonus for 7-Eleven is the millions of dollars in free media the stunt has received so far. One way to encourage a boatload of fawningly positive coverage? Align your brand with the pop-culture wonder. Whether in print, TV, or online, journalists will jump at any opportunity to show off their comprehensive set of Homer, Marge and Bart references. While I was in the Times Square store, several geeky-looking guys, who worked either in print, TV or online, were interviewing each other, trying to drop the most-impressive number of Simpsons’ references.

Perhaps they, too, will vie for prizes: With the purchase of drinks or sandwiches, customers get coded game pieces, which when entered at 7-11simpsons.com, allow them to win one of 711 gifts or the ultimate prize: having one’s likeness become a character in an upcoming show.

So forget the movie. That will live or die on its own strengths. The winner here is 7-Eleven. Just as the animated cartoon itself belies prejudice by indulging in every possible stereotype, the 7-Eleven chain has turned a giant negative into top-notch entertainment for everyone entering the stores. The result should be exponentially good for the brand image. Or I’ll be a cheese-eating-surrender-monkey’s uncle.