Commentary

7-Eleven Election Genius: Hail To The Beans!

7-Eleven has always provided alert consumers with a startling array of choices: Big Gulp or Slurpee? Big Bite Hot Dog or Turkey and Zesty Havarti on Wheat Nut Bread? Now it has added another compelling choice--and one with far-reaching implications for pollsters and marketers of all stripes.

I discovered the new offering the other day when I was buying a coffee. 7-Eleven now offers consumers three cup choices: a red John McCain cup, a blue Barack Obama cup or the generic 7-Eleven cup to pour a nice cup of Java into. I thought it was an interesting idea, and I made my selection and headed to the check-out.

That's where they got me. When the cashier scanned my cup, the name of the candidate I chose (my lips are sealed on which one for the sake of this particular argument) popped up in the cash register's window. They're collecting the data! I was struck by how innovative 7-Eleven is, and how something so simple could be a very accurate polling process.

In the last two elections, 7-Eleven's completely unscientific, informal, but thoroughly modern cup-sales data accurately predicted the results. In 2000, only 1 percentage point separated the cup-counts of George W. Bush and Al Gore. In 2004, President Bush cups outsold Sen. John Kerry, 51% to 49%.

In contrast to what many of the more rigorous "scientific polls" news organizations regularly tout, 7-Eleven also breaks out results state by state and, by request, store by store.

Let's turn to the superannuated ways that hundreds of polls are currently conducted for a minute. Now, I am not a polling expert, but I am thinking the pollsters make enough phone calls to make a statistically relevant poll.

However, it's almost comical how the polls completely contradict each other--one poll has McCain ahead, while another may have Obama winning by a landslide. The average consumer knows very little about how the poll was conducted, and doesn't really care. It's just a scoreboard of sorts--one that provides a fodder for debates with family and friends over who will win.

The only thing predictable about presidential polls lately is how unpredictable they are. 7-Eleven, on the other hand, has data based on the candidate that people actively support. Choosing to drink from a cup with a particular candidate's picture on it is comparable to wearing a pin that advertises a political allegiance. If you were a supporter of Obama, there is no way you would walk around town with a McCain Cup, and vice versa. If you're undecided, or just private, the generic 7-Eleven cup is always available.

More notable than the tallied total, 7-Eleven's data is showing that Obama is beating McCain in every state. Again--this is coffee cups, but the intent of the consumer is hard not to take seriously. It probably makes for a better assessment of what Americans are thinking than random phone polls. If you want to see current results, click here. While this may not be a statistically valid study, it reaches everyday people going about their business.

But this kind of data could provide an invaluable glimpse into so much more. Let's look into the future: there are tons of self-service franchises that can track data the same way. Where does this lead, beyond basic opinion polls? That depends on the leading lights at brands, and whether their imagination, ambition and drive for innovation are as finely tuned as the executives at 7-Eleven.

The possibilities are endless. Many brands may be interested in purchasing the right to be on these cups for market research. I would think Huggies and Pampers would love the opportunity to battle it out. Perhaps it's a good, trackable coupon distribution channel. The data would be strong enough to show many brands how they stack up.

Go out and vote next Tuesday.

Hail to the beans.

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