Once Again, Sure Fit's Marketing Gets Ugly

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In less than a week, 54,000 people have cast their votes online in slipcover company Sure Fit Inc.'s Ugly Couch contest, all as a result of one house file e-mail drop, public relations and word of mouth.


The contest, which debuted offline as an awareness-building initiative seven years ago and went online two years ago, receives no advertising support.


"The reason we started it seven years ago was because we had no budget and we really needed to get the word out," said Liana Toscanini, vice president of insurgence at Sure Fit.


Surefit.net averages 20,000 unique visitors a day driven mainly by traditional advertising -- about $5 million in print and television this year.


Toscanini credits much of the turnout for the Ugly Couch contest to an e-mail Sure Fit sent to its house list of 500,000 addresses alerting subscribers that the contest would begin Aug. 20. Sure Fit began building its e-mail list about 18 months ago. The company contacts subscribers about once a month with new product announcements and other decorating-related news.


Under the Ugly Couch contest, each year a panel of judges chooses 10 semi-finalists from between 800 and 1,000 entries. Consumers are then asked to cast their votes for the three ugliest of the 10. The voting for this year's contest, which drew 900 entries, ends today.


The winner will be announced on national television sometime in September and will receive $2,000. Last year's winner was announced on the "Live with Regis" show. Sure Fit executives do not yet know where the winner will be announced this year.


"No one will confirm for me until about the day before," Toscanini said. "We're not sure if it's going to be on Regis or what, but the final winner will be revealed in mid-September."


In another branding-by-e-mail exercise, Sure Fit also added the Smart, Simple, Chic Decorating Ideas contest to its promotional arsenal earlier this year. Visitors to the Web site were invited to submit ideas in line with the contest name, which is also the image Sure Fit aims to project.


"The ideas that came back were so clever, so easy and so affordable ... . This is not Martha Stewart," Toscanini said.


A woman in Texas, for example, suggested hanging a crystal in the window of a child's bedroom so that it makes rainbows on the walls all day.


Seven judges picked 200 winning ideas out of 800 entries. Sure Fit is publishing the 200 winning ideas in a book. The winners will receive a free slipcover and copy of the book when it comes out in October.


Sure Fit claims an 85 percent share of the slipcover market. It is on track to do $140 million in sales this year, up 40 percent from last year, according to Toscanini.


The contests are part of a strategy that began 10 years ago -- when struggling Sure Fit's sales were about $20 million -- to turn it from a business-to-business, manufacturing-oriented company to a business-to-consumer, marketing-oriented firm.


"We were having a very tough time," Toscanini said. "We were family owned. They sold it to a bunch of banks. Then there was a leveraged buyout. ... We had about nine owners in eight years."


A decade later, the Allentown, PA-based company sells direct to consumers by catalog -- about 8 million per year in quarterly drops -- the Internet and, most recently, direct response television. Some radio may be in the works, as well. About 5,000 retail locations also carry Sure Fit slipcovers, but according to Toscanini, the retailers do not complain about the company's direct-to-consumer marketing.


"We're really out there [advertising] and I think it helps our retailers a lot, which is why they don't complain."


Sure Fit has no marketing plans for the list of people who voted in the Ugly Couch contest. "They haven't given me permission to do anything other than notify them of the Ugly Couch winner," Toscanini said.


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