Make Like a Banana and Split

A trip home for Oktoberfest reveals a lot about convenience-store brand loyalty
oktoberfest parade

They actually stood and cheered when the man in the walking banana costume marched by.

He was also throwing candy from a bucket, but I like to think the day-drinking fest-goers and rowdy college kids were applauding the banana man. Under normal circumstances, it would take a lot of guts to dress up like a banana and walk down the middle of a busy thoroughfare. I certainly wouldn’t expect to get a standing ovation.

But these are not normal circumstances. This is Oktoberfest in La Crosse, Wis., the birthplace of Old Style beer, college town, and headquarters of Kwik Trip—the epicenter of the retailer’s 475 stores.

Which brings us back to the banana.

My mom likes to say the Oktoberfest parade is my “birthday parade.” She sat on the curb with my dad during this annual spectacle 39 years ago, on the day I was born. They left the parade and went to the hospital. This year, I drove my kids north from Chicago to witness my birthday parade for themselves.

The parade is a three-hour-long spectacle including Oktoberfest royalty decked out in German period garb, marching bands and political candidates. Local businesses get their space in the sprawling procession, too, but not many elicited the same level of civic pride as the Kwik Trip float (a giant fiberglass cow hawking milk and ice cream) and its walking banana.

It certainly wasn’t the most sophisticated float in the show, but the crowd around me hoisted their beer cans in fingerless-glove-clad hands and cheered when it rolled by. They high-fived the banana, who was also wearing a simple handmade sign promoting the retailer’s 33-cents-per-pound deal on bananas.

This isn’t a business that needs to advertise itself in this town of 51,522. Yet there they were, throwing candy out to the kids and goofing around with the well-oiled grownups. Stop 10 people on the street in La Crosse and ask them where they buy their bananas and eight will probably tell you Kwik Trip. But this one product didn’t become synonymous with the retailer overnight. It took years of single-minded product promotion, from TV ads and radio spots to festival appearances.

And if it works, don’t break it.

So year after year the man dresses up like a banana, puts on his comfortable shoes and walks the 2-mile parade route. And year after year we will cheer him on because, after all, in La Crosse, Wis., bananas and Kwik Trip go together like beer and brats.