NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- When you're in a competitive market, you have two options to stand apart from the competition: You can make a superior product, or you can come up with a gimmick. And while many companies move their industries forward by striving to achieve the former, many inevitably succumb to the temptation to do the latter. In the past few years we've seen film studios race to churn out 3-D movies, fast food companies introduce goofy, high-calorie menu items and beer companies find new ways to modify their cans and bottles. Of course, pinning down what does or doesn't constitute a gimmick is tough. "It depends on who you ask -- one person may call something a gimmick that's deconstructive and degrading, but if you ask the creator, they'll call it an innovation or a feature," says Sasha Strauss, a branding expert and managing director of brand consulting firm Innovation Protocol. But he adds that whatever you call it, a product gimmick is only a bad thing if it detracts from the main event and hurts the brand. "When companies add on unnecessary supplements that distract us, it degrades our connection to the brand to begin with," he explains. "When they say, 'Check out A, now check out A-plus-1,' what they've done is distracted the audience from importance of A and put the attention on the plus-1." There are good gimmicks and bad gimmicks, in other words. Here are four gimmick products from 2011, some of which flopped and some of which accomplished exactly what the company set out to achieve.
Burger King's Stuffed Burger
2010 was very much the year of weird fast food, with such gimmicky offerings as a sandwich with fried chicken in place of bread ( KFC's ( YUM) infamous Double Down) and a quesadilla filled with macaroni and cheese. And while 2011 couldn't quite match that level of fast food lunacy, the year kicked off with a bang when Burger King ( BKC) introduced the BK Stuffed Steakhouse Burger in January. The burger featured jalapenos and cheddar cheese, both eminently reasonable toppings for a burger. But the toppings weren't on top -- they were incorporated into the meat of the patty, little chunks of flavor to encounter as you eat. As we said at the time, Burger King didn't invent the idea of a burger stuffed with its toppings -- blue cheese-stuffed burgers, for instance, can be a culinary delight. But we sampled the Stuffed Steakhouse Burger and found it to be a step down from its usual burger offerings. And given that Burger King has been pulling out all the stops in a desperate bid to play catch-up in the fast food wars -- including a brief flirtation with a "Pizza Burger" in 2010 -- we feel comfortable tossing this sandwich in the "gimmick" category. The menu item has since been discontinued, and unless it attained a McRib-style cult status we're not aware of, we don't expect to see it again. To Strauss, though, that doesn't matter. Gimmick though it may be, the burger was meant to project an air of innovation while strengthening the customer's connection to the brand. "Imagine if you just had the same burger once a week for three years: You'd need to be reminded of why it was great to begin with," he explains. "In my perception, it wasn't about trying to sell you a new burger, but about reminding you why you loved Burger King's burgers to begin with ... And at the same time, it's designed to get your attention." Even if Burger King never expected the Stuffed Steakhouse Burger to take off, creating this strange product projected an air of innovation and change while simultaneously reminding customers how much they love Burger King's staple menu items.
Coors Light's Cold Activation Cans
In the crowded light beer market, brands such as Miller Lite ( SAB) and Bud Light generally try to stand out by making outrageous commercials and introducing product gimmicks (just look at Miller Lite's "vortex bottle," which apparently swirls your beer around before it goes in your mouth). Coors Light ( TAP) is no different, but all of its marketing efforts are in keeping with the central attribute of the brand: The idea that the beer is really, really cold. Previous attempts to hammer this point home took the form of the cold-activated can, which featured an image of mountains that turned blue when the contents reached a low enough temperature. But this year the company took things to the next level with a two-stage cold activation can, featuring two color-activated bars indicating when the can was "cold" and "super-cold." The result was a series of commercials, including one where a man assures his girlfriend that he's studying for the "bar exam," only for it to be revealed that he's examining the bars on a can of Coors Light (get it?). The company also introduced the Cold Activation Window -- a beer case with a special window that allows you to peer in and see the cold-activated cans inside. Given that this latest can design reinforces Coors Light's existing brand perception, it's hard to call it a misstep by the company. Still, the relentless gimmicks have some people rolling their eyes. "I can't help thinking it's dangerously close to a SNL parody," wrote Steffan Postaer on his blog, Gods of Advertising. "In my view, the brand is jumping the shark."
Bud Light's Writable Labels
You didn't think Bud Light was about to get out-gimmicked by Coors, did you? While Coors Light has built its brand around low temperatures, Anheuser-Busch ( BUD) has always sought to position its flagship light beer as a uniquely social animal that brings people together and fuels endless good times. Just look at its dual slogans, "The sure sign of a good time" and the vaguer "Here we go." To that end, it's created a gimmick bottle of its own in the form of a label you can write on. The label has a small section where you can scribble out messages by applying pressure with a key or coin. In the commercials, revelers are seen using the label to scribble out their names, phone numbers or, for some reason, a picture of a football. This is dubbed "the latest innovation in social networking." Another commercial has two bachelors inviting loads of beautiful women to their party by handing out bottles inscribed with their apartment number. In a press release announcing the bottle, the company explains that it "allows adult beer drinkers the unique opportunity to add their own personal touch to the bottle." Now, we don't really have a gripe with the company giving drinkers the chance to let their creativity run free. And we can kind of understand why it would be useful to scratch your name on the bottle if everyone at the party is drinking Bud Light and you want to remember which one is yours. But the other applications seem pretty limited. Are people really going to start sharing phone numbers at bars by writing on each other's bottles of Bud? You can't exactly stick an empty bottle of beer in your wallet, and it's a lot easier to just tell the other person your number so they can put it in their phone. Oh, and if you find yourself drawing pictures of footballs on your bottle of beer, you're probably not at a very fun party. Agata Kaczanowska, a beverage industry analyst with market research firm IBISWorld, says there's a simple reason why light beers such as Coors Light and Bud Light tend to use this sort of gimmicky packaging. "
The current 3-D trend began in 2009 with James Cameron's wildly successful Avatar, and when we looked more deeply at the cinematic craze last year, one analyst described 3-D as a "gimmick" that Hollywood has historically used to differentiate movies from home entertainment. So it was perhaps a bit ironic when companies started to bring that same gimmick into the home with glasses-free 3-D technology. Glasses-free (stereoscopic) 3-D was not a new arrival in 2011. Nor is it necessarily a gimmick: Many people say that the need to buy and wear expensive 3-D glasses is the main reason they won't buy a 3-D TV for their homes, suggesting that glasses-free 3-D TVs might be the best hope for mass adoption. But the introduction of 3-D technology to mobile devices in 2011 felt like desperation. In March Nintendo launched the 3DS, a mobile gaming system that differed from the original DS in that it offered a glasses-free 3-D display. But sales of the device were poor, leading the company to implement a massive price cut in July. And that comes as little surprise: The addition of a trendy 3-D screen felt like a distraction rather than an enhancement for a brand that's traditionally focused on gameplay and originality. Meanwhile, HTC ( HTC) launched the EVO 3-D phone, which tries to distinguish itself from the dozens of other smartphones on the market with a 3-D screen and the ability to shoot photo and video in three dimensions. When a commercial for the phone implored viewers "Let's make homemade 3-D the next big thing," it felt more like a desperate plea than a serious suggestion. Critics seemed to agree. "Ultimately, while 3-D is fun and whimsical, we can't help but think it's just a gimmick," wrote gadget review site Engadget in its review of the phone. >To submit a news tip, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.