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The now infamous "The Simpsons Movie" promotion of summer 2007 could not have been accomplished without FreshWorks -- a group of talent from TPN, Tracey Locke and Integer Dallas, three Omnicom firms that came together in 2005 to form a virtual advertising and marketing agency exclusively for 7-Eleven.
"Since we have a seamless relationship, we think we're one with the marketing group, almost as an extension of them," said Bobbi Merkel, director of convergence for FreshWorks. "We sit in on meetings with category managers, the legal department or even with logistics and operations."
The advantage FreshWorks provides is expressed in its slogan of "First, Best and Only," explained Merkel. "We'll be first in the market, with the best things we can have and also be the only place to get them."
Many of the promotions are done with help from existing relationships the agencies have with major film and video game producers.
"Outside the four walls of 7-Eleven, we are its outgoing ambassador, and our relationships extend for many years with other properties and partners," said Merkel, noting it was these preexisting relations that helped FreshWorks secure "The Simpsons" promotion last year with 20th Century Fox and its recent Iron Man movie promotion with Paramount in April.
Past promotions' success can also be attributed to FreshWorks' understanding of 7-Eleven's target customer -- the 18 to 34-year-old male -- which comes from research. The team looks at what type of people shop 7-Eleven, from light to heavy users, said Merkel. Early on in the relationship, FreshWorks surveyed customers about their leisure activities because the chain wanted to be present in those occasions, according to Lynda Oliver, general manager for FreshWorks.
"It was a resounding 'movies, video games and sports,'" she said, adding where 7-Eleven has focused its promotional activities has been on properties related to those activities, such as the "Halo 3" and "Guitar Hero" video games; the movies "Spiderman 3," "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man;" as well as the Major League Baseball team, the Chicago White Sox.
"[Customers] feel as though we understand them," Merkel said. "They are looking for instantaneous gratification. We can satisfy that."
Oliver added: "If these guys want to play a video game, we'll become the place to do that and get a Slurpee too."
As for more projects of "The Simpsons" proportions, it may be a long time coming.
"We may not necessarily feel compelled to top ["The Simpsons"]. It was a perfect storm, where so many things moved in the right direction," said Oliver, noting much was learned from the promotion that will help the chain's activities in the future. "You won't see another one anytime soon, but you'll always see elements of that fun in what we can entertain the customer with."
All parties were not completely pleased with the summer 2007 "Simpsons" campaign, which transformed 12 7-Eleven stores in the U.S. and Canada into the movie's Kwik-E-Mart. The promotion caught some flak from franchisees who noted that while the rebranded stores saw "phenomenal" sales increases of between 50 and 60 percent, other 7-Eleven stores in the same towns experienced a sales decrease, according to Roger St. George, head of the Pacific Northwest Franchise Owners Association.
"There were some hurt feelings that not everyone could benefit," he said, noting that he did not personally experience any of those feelings from franchisees in his area.
"I understand you can't transform every store into a Kwik-E-Mart," said another franchisee, Don Hefner, a single-store owner in Fallston, Md. "But some franchisees couldn't even get the products that went along with the promotion."
Tariq Khan, the former head of the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees, however, called "The Simpsons" promotion a huge success and didn't begrudge the fact that it "put a few dollars in the pockets of franchisees who participated." Still, he added, each promotion needs to be evaluated on its own merits.
"The Simpsons" promotion "was a huge success because it was so creative and innovative," said CEO Joseph DePinto. "We took products that were cartoons and never real, and we brought them to life and sold them in our stores. It created a ton of buzz and the partnership with Fox was bold. It was a risk -- there's a lot of satire about the c-store industry in 'The Simpsons,' but we did it in the spirit of having fun and trying to do something different. It was well-received by our customers -- we won several national marketing awards -- and it added additional luster to the 7-Eleven brand to be innovative and creative."