For many, the name Kum & Go means something. The chain has more than 400 locations. Across Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, they have a cumulative 200K followers. In eleven states, loyal customers choose them for their convenient locations, clean facilities, and product selection.

But at the same time, the phrase “Kum & Go” means, well, something else. Today on Insiders, we lament the passing of the midwestern gas station brand that signaled the changing times, how brands can turn social media into social justice, and what we leave behind when irreverent brands are acquired.

Pulling Out Too Quickly?

In April 2023, Maverik, a Utah-based convenience store chain, announced its acquisition of Kum & Go, an Iowa-based chain of gas stations and convenience stores throughout the Midwest. When the estimated $2 billion deal transpired, one of the biggest questions was what would happen to the Kum & Go name and brand. 

Kum & Go isn’t the only gas station name that makes middle schoolers giggle (looking at you, Pump n’ Munch), but of all the double entendre gas stations, Kum & Go rose the highest. To grow to a total of 400 stores named Kum & Go… you must be doing something right.

In September, Maverik announced they would be rebranding acquired stores in regions where Maverik stores already existed — Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The question remained as to what would become of the stores in the heartland, where the Kum & Go brand was strongest.

“I think there was some concern about the inadvertent double-entendre of the Kum & Go name,” as one anonymous source told news outlet CSP Daily News.

Was Maverik pulling out?

The Making of a Kum-munity

I live in Springfield, MO, the home of thirty-three Kum & Go convenience stores. Here, the brand is ubiquitous. Kum & Go tees, beanies, and oversized plastic cups with handles are common sights. From 2019 to 2023, their brand recognition exploded on a national scale as a result of a bold new brand strategy, primarily seen on social media.

I have my receipts about my longtime admiration of the brand. I first wrote about Kum & Go in 2020, featuring their collaboration merch with Budweiser in An Anecdoted Topography of Brands :

When they released their custom sneakers, the “Ampersand 1’s,” they found themselves in the Neutral Good position on my Corporate Merch Alignment Chart from The Good, the Bad, and the Totally Absurd (The Kum & Go Ampersand 1’s ranked as Neutral Good.)

It wasn’t only their merch that made me a fan, though.

Kum & Go’s online persona I encountered in 2020 was socially conscious, self-aware, and had guts. Ariel Rubin, Kum & Go’s Director of Communications from March 2019 to July 2021, was one of the key voices behind their social media persona and antics. The Webby Award-winning content creator and social strategist was a key player in the brand’s iconic rise.

“For a minute, we were able to be part of the conversation of the internet and engage people regularly with a huge following. At the time, Twitter was a competition to see who could be the funniest person running a brand or the most clever with a meme.” said Rubin to me in a conversation following the Maverik acquisition.

The approach worked. A Wayback Machine screenshot from April 2018 shows @kumandgo tweeting predictable content about potato chips, gas station coffee, and Bang energy drinks with single-digit engagement. Posts that used to get a dozen likes on a good day were now seeing hundreds, even thousands, of likes and other engagements. Their tweet “in my kum era” in October 2021 racked up more than 20K likes and over 4,000 RTs.

When Youtuber Casey Neistat cracked a joke about the brand’s name, Kum & Go used the opportunity to dunk on their biggest competitor, and Neistat himself, at the same time.

For years, the brand had done its best to ignore the negative interpretations of its name. Now, they were leaning in. Kum & Go’s social team walked a careful tightrope over the obvious punchline. They knew that once you go there, the fun’s over. Even Colbert couldn’t resist a cheap laugh at the name.

There was beauty to the delayed gratification. Kum & Go had developed a form of social media “edging”—elevating it into an artform:

The brand’s voice wasn’t purely about making jokes. They didn’t hesitate to use their platform to advocate for social justice movements. In the summer of 2020, amidst mass protests across the country following George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, Kum & Go used the juvenile curiosity of their fans to redirect their audience to a link pointed at the NAACP’s legal defense fund.

Pictured: the bitly link goes to the financial support page of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund 

Their biggest merchandise hit was a tee featuring the message “Kum & Gay Rights,” produced in collaboration with JustinPlus, a popular gay video game streamer. This tee raised tens of thousands of dollars for The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.

This is not what gas stations do, especially not in the Midwest.

What made Kum & Go’s social strategy so brilliant was its authenticity. The viral nature of the content was based on the collective knowledge of the context of the joke—that we’re all in on it, together. 

They didn’t always stick the landing on this. Their most viral moment came in November of 2021, when they created the first “gas station influencer meal,” in an undisclosed partnership with author and motivational speaker Kyle Scheele.

In a video posted to TikTok, Scheele was seen sneaking a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself into a Kum & Go store. The cutout promoted a fictional “Kyle Scheele Meale.”

The video racked up more than 20M views in a couple of days; resulting in hordes of viewers demanding a “real” Kyle Scheele Meale. Four days after the initial video, Kum & Go launched the promotion across all stores for the Kyle Scheele Meale—a pizza sandwich (two slices of pizza) and a Red Bull for $5. Kum & Go would donate $2 from each meal to the charity No Kid Hungry. 

But, the day that the meal promotion was announced, Kum & Go's director of brand marketing, Matt Riezman, revealed in an interview to Adweek that the whole thing had been staged. Fans of the seemingly spontaneous series of events felt betrayed. 

Though Kum & Go had garnered unprecedented attention on the platform (something rarely achieved by brands of any size), they now drew backlash for their tactics. In some ways, this moment was part of a larger collapse of “Brand Twitter.”

The content was always performative, but the stakes were constantly raised to break through the noise with bolder and crazier ideas. It was cute when Wendy’s made diss tracks, but it may have begun the arms race of social media antics; leading to Hellmann’s mayonnaise shit-talking a guy for ghosting Tinder dates and PBR tweeting about eating ass

The Kumwashing Begins

On January 10, 2024, Maverik announced they would rebrand all Kum & Go locations to Maverik. Shortly after the announcement, tweets and posts from Kum & Go accounts began disappearing.

The kumwashing had begun.

Before my eyes, a beautiful brand was being washed away. The Instagram and TikTok accounts underwent a hard reset, erasing all past content. On Twitter, past tweets were also being deleted. Some were silly, but others, like “protect trans kids. Period.” were wiped.

New content going out post-acquisition lacked the wit and charm of Kum & Go’s golden era. Here’s an example of the difference in tweets from Kum & Go almost exactly two years apart:

Another example, four years apart to the day:

The new content isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just boring. Which in turn makes it ineffective. Why follow an account that doesn’t influence, inform, or entertain? Who needs fan tweets about gas station pizza and putting air in your tires? 

Looking at the social feeds of their acquirer, Maverik, it’s no surprise. Their social strategy seems to boil down to “See this beautiful mountain? Don’t forget to buy coffee and gas from Maverik on your way there.” Their merch features artwork that belongs on a Jeep tire cover from Etsy. Does this approach work in the plains of Iowa? 

Kum & Gone

In the end, the decision is strictly business. Maverik didn’t buy Kum & Go for the name, the tweets, or the merch. Hit tweets don’t sell gasoline.

While their follower counts and social engagement skyrocketed, it was hard to say if these interactions boosted sales at their locations in places like Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas. One might argue the approach had the potential to inflict serious harm on Kum & Go’s bottom line.

“It could have been us that got Bud Light’d,” said Rubin, referring to Bud Light’s controversy after partnering with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Just a week after Kum & Go tweeted, “protect trans kids. Period.” Mulvaney posted a video promoting Bud Light during March Madness. Conservatives lost their collective minds. Mulvaney received a barrage of hate mail, talking heads clamored over the moral decline of America, and Kid Rock bought several cases of Bud Light and shot them with a machine gun. Bud Light sales slumped, and several Anheuser-Busch leaders lost their jobs.

After spending as much as $2 billion to acquire the brand, it appears that Maverik sees Kum & Go’s online persona as a liability, not an asset.

That was the beauty of it, though. In Iowa, a group of professionals used a gas station brand to raise support for causes they cared about, make dumb jokes, and dive into the current of culture. For these employees, it made the work meaningful. “The brand strategy created a culture internally and externally that completely transformed what working and shopping at Kum & Go felt like,” says Rubin. 

Rubin added, “I think that a lot of people will shit on brands playing progressive. Those people don't live in Iowa, and they don't understand what it's like to live in Iowa. They live in New York. When you live in Iowa and you're demonized so deeply for being queer, I think seeing a brand as vanilla as a gas station supporting trans rights is hugely impactful.”

It wasn’t just funny when Kum & Go said, “Kum & Gay Rights.” It was empowering. 

Among their 5,000 employees, most in rural areas, there were certainly some who felt unsafe or unwanted at times because of their sexuality. When they put on their uniform with the embroidered double entendre, would they feel a little safer or a little more valued?

Does it hurt for them to know their new employer sought out and deleted a tweet that said “protect trans kids. Period.”?

In a moment when it feels nearly impossible to get consumers to pay attention to your brand, Kum & Go created a miracle. They knew no one needed to follow a gas station on social media, so they created a reason to want to. In doing that, the brand had purpose. For a time, the name Kum & Go meant something. And maybe that meaning was scarier to Maverik than the double entendre.

The Kum & Go brand, as we once knew it, is already gone. In a year, Maverik plans to retire it entirely. Eventually, all things that Kum must go. Maybe it’s better to have Kum & gone than to never have Kum at all.

A since-deleted tweet posted on November 18, 2022