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Sarah Liberatore, founder of STLTO, holds up a bottle of her red wine

While still a marketing student at Ryerson University in Toronto two years ago, Sarah Liberatore took a transatlantic jaunt to Verona, Italy, to attend Vinitaly, a major international wine show.

It was a fact-finding mission for Ms. Liberatore. While working part-time for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario during university, she'd learned that Italian wines had lost their footing in the Canadian market.

Without the flashy labels that have become popular with other countries' brands, Italy's wines looked dusty on the shelves.

But Ms. Liberatore had a twist in mind to change this: more stylish branding in the form of an image of a shoe stiletto on the label, and a glittery screw-top cap to appeal to women, who are the majority of wine buyers, according to several studies

At the trade show, winemakers scoffed. "I'll never forget, one Italian man looked at me and said, 'Have you lost your mind?'"

Undeterred, Ms. Liberatore launched two wines two years later: a red Malbec-Merlot blend and a white unoaked Chardonnay made at a family estate winery called Feudi San Pio, in Abruzzo, Italy.

She's founded a company called Feudi San Pio Inc. but branded it STLTO Wine, a play on the stiletto label.

This summer, both wines made their debut at select LCBO stores in Ontario, to good reviews from wine critics. She's now in the process of patenting her glittery labelling and screw-cap closure.

"It's the first product in the wine world that has a touch of glitter on it," says Ms. Liberatore, who hails from Vaughan, Ont.

For a newcomer business, a gimmick can be a helpful way to stand out from the pack, says Miranda Goode, an assistant professor of marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

"A lot of the decisions are made at the point of purchase, when you're standing in the aisle wondering what wine to buy for a dinner party, and you haven't done any research," Prof. Goode says, adding that goes for many consumer products.

"Sometimes, to get someone to try your product for the first time, you need something extra to catch their attention."

But gimmicks have a bad rap. Ms. Liberatore is loathe to consider her creative branding a "gimmick." She says too many concept wines come and go; they may initially catch the eye of wine drinkers, but the product itself is often poor and doesn't create brand loyalty.

So, STLTO isn't a gimmick per se, she insists. "The quality of wine was always top of mind before marketing."

Patricia Macri and her sister run Toronto-based shoe accessory company Erica Guiliani, which they originally established in 2008 under the name Le Bootique.

Their products include clips, straps and other accoutrements intended to make ladies' shoes look like the latest season's high-end, designer heels, sandals and boots on the market.

With no previous experience in fashion, they've managed in just a couple of years to get their products into 650 stores across North America, including the Bay, Steve Madden, and Bakers.

Like Ms. Liberatore, Ms. Macri dislikes the word 'gimmick,' and insists her products won't be a passing fancy for consumers.

"In the 1980s, when shoe clips were in style, that was a fad," she says.

However, consumers lost interest when they didn't evolve with changing fashion trends and began to look dated. Ms. Macri insists that her products respond to fashion trends, allowing consumers to get what she describes as a "hot-off-the-catwalk look."

She says that even after two years in business, she doesn't have any Canadian competition.

But, warns Prof. Thomas Hellman, a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, companies that rely on a gimmick or novelty product that cannot be legally protected through, say, a patent can be easily overtaken by copycats.

Many companies with seemingly gimmicky products or marketing strategies have stuck around, despite the predictions of experts, Prof. Hellman adds.

He points out that many figured The Body Shop's cruelty-free, environmentally friendly products appealed to a passing consumer trend. The naysayers couldn't have been more wrong: 35 years later, The Body Shop International PLC is a multinational company. There was a deeper market desire, in the end, he says.

But as far as he's concerned, there's nothing wrong with a short-term business based on a gimmick or fad product: "You ride the wave to the end, and then you stop." Not every business venture needs to be sustainable, he says. "You've milked the cow, you make a lot of money on one product, and you move on," he says.

Calgary-based Stillness Room Inc. is gunning for long-term viability. Established less than two years ago by two spiritually inclined Calgarians, including former marketer Jackie Dumaine, the company sells low-to-the-ground chairs for meditation.

It could be considered a gimmick, since furniture is hardly a necessity for Zen seekers – a pillow on the floor will suffice – but the chairs are appealing to those seeking more comfortable body alignment and are also meant to complement a room's décor. "In the West, we like nice things," Ms. Dumaine says.

Initially, Ms. Dumaine and her business partner, Dale Miles, were aiming at a very specific niche: yoga studios, practitioners and other spiritually minded folks. But they may have stumbled onto a larger, previously unmet consumer demand for low-to-the-ground chairs.

"We've sold them as breastfeeding chairs, reading chairs, and video-gaming chairs," she says of her company's products, which are sold online and at boutiques in Alberta and British Columbia.

So what makes a gimmick work?

"To be effective, a gimmick has to focus on a specific audience. It has to be unique, memorable, and … spellable," says Craig Elias, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business and an entrepreneur himself.

If consumers can recall the name of a company that tickled their fancy, but can't spell its name, they'll never be able to track it down again, he says.

A successful gimmick must also fall within a typical consumer's discretionary spending, he adds. "I'd say the more expensive [a gimmick]is, the less likely it'll work." If a consumer needs to justify the purchase of an expensive product – like a vehicle – a gimmick alone won't make a sale, he argues.

Marketing is also critical for a gimmick to succeed, Prof. Elias says. The key is an aggressive branding strategy that ensures the company is on the top of the heap, if others copy the idea, adds Prof. Elias, who runs a Calgary-based sales consulting company called Shift Selling.

"What [gimmicks]do a good job of is carving a niche, but what they have to do [after]is protect that niche," he says.

To that end, entrepreneurs need to buy up any relevant domain names and dominate social media.

They also need to listen to how consumers describe the product and base marketing materials around their understanding, he advises.

Just a few weeks ago, Prof. Elias received a LinkedIn message from Don Kubley, president and chief executive officer of Alaska-based Intershelter Inc. seeking marketing advice for his dome-like houses.

In the past, he's balked when people called his houses igloos. But Prof. Elias advised him to capitalize on it: This was how the public knew his product, and it made sense to brand according to what consumers found salient, he says.

"Stop thinking about being right, and start thinking about how to get rich," he told him.

Mr. Kubley says he is taking the advice to heart.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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