The place of awards in small business, by Jess Magill.

If you run a small business, no doubt you will be bamboozled by the number of industry and awards and competitions available to enter, particularly in food and drink. 

From industry- specific competitions to media awards from every blog, magazine or website, people are offering you the chance for your goods and services to be judged. 

Some awards have very distinct categories with one winner in each, while others have large categories and hand out placement certificates to scores of businesses. Sometimes it can feel a bit like cash for medals – which absolutely has its uses. Particularly when you start a new business, it’s easy to see that some accolades can help to cement your business as high-quality, trusted or excellent in some way.

How do you weigh up whether it represents value for your business, especially if you’re new to running a small business? Well, we’ve got a few ideas.

Types of awards

There are two main types of awards; industry judged and public vote.

Industry awards are often run by trade publications, industry bodies or sometimes suppliers to the field. They convene panels of people who should ideally know a fair amount about the category they are judging. Food and drink products are often tasted blind, unless it’s a brand or packaging award. 

Judges will often make personal notes on a product or business, then compare their findings and arbitrate between themselves. Different awards rate things differently. Some will have three winners in each category, gold, silver and bronze. Sometimes products will be ranked, and a category will have a larger number of medal-winners, with one overall category champion. In other examples, medals are only awarded if a certain standard is reached – if products don’t meet it then no top awards will be handed out. Look at past years lists of winners if you want to understand. Also most awards will make their award structure clear on their website or conditions of entry.

There are also some free awards which are awarded on a public vote rather than an industry panel. These are a popularity contest, and you have to be committed to cajoling every customer and their dog into voting for you. It can take a lot of effort with constant posts on social media and email prompts. The benefit to this is that everyone who voted for you will feel that they have a small stake in your success, and if you do well will feel they played a part in that. 

You won’t just get the publicity from winning an award but from all the requests for people to participate in the voting, some of which will come through shares by people who are essentially acting as your brand ambassadors. They can all form part of that crucial number of ‘hits’ that bring potential customers across the line.

What awards cosT

To enter industry awards, there is usually some kind of cost.

Sometimes a certain number of entries are included with a membership of some kind. In our case, The Society of Independent Brewers, The Federation of Small Businesses, and Food Drink Devon all offer a number of awards entries as part of membership. 

For most other awards there is a cost to entry, and this is understandable – the body behind the awards has to plan them, employ judges, publicists, etc.

The cost of entry tends to run from as little as £35 to a whopping £500, but most average from £150-£200.

Then, if you are one of the chosen ones, you make it through to a shortlist. Except the list is often not very short (we were recently in a list of 52 nominees for a prize). And the reason for this is, of course, the awards ceremony. 

For what are awards without an awards ceremony? 

The more nominees there are, the more people willing to pay to be at the awards dinner, where a critical mass is needed to make the whole thing work, and the more publicity the whole thing gets.

Why awards exist

PR and marketing opportunities are the real reason most of these awards exist. For industry bodies, it gives them standing in their sector, and allows them to shout about their industry and its champions. For magazines and blogs it gives them authority, generates lots of visual content, and links them with producers and servicers i.e. potential advertisers. When they encourage the participants to spread the word to their networks and customers, it means free publicity for the hosting organisation. So there’s a reason they call it mutual back-slapping. 

Of course it’s necessary to shout about quality and excellence, and to promote leaders in their fields. It’s not that awards aren’t a good thing – it’s just that there are so many of them. And most small businesses can’t afford to do more than a couple.

The investment

By the time you have entered and paid to attend a fancy awards dinner (anywhere from £75 – £450), you can be looking at splashing anywhere from £300 to £1000+ if you take the whole team. Add this onto £200-500 for your awards entries, and you want to be sure your business is getting something out of it.

And beware the ones that nominate you, say you have won an award, and then suggest you might want to buy the trophy- at a cost of £2000. I kid you not. Others will offer you a free placing in a directory, but then try very hard to upsell you on an enhanced listing, ad or feature. If it’s not a publication you are familiar with, then it probably won’t reach your potential customers, and isn’t a good use of funds. 

Also, there is often a time investment in entering awards. 

Some of them, such as business awards, require quite lengthy entry forms where you have to wow the judges with your self-reported successes. Striking the right tone, keeping it factual yet interesting, personable and impressive is not easy and takes some honing within the set word limits.

The awards decided by public vote will often take a lot of your time. There’s crafting social media posts, writing marketing emails, or collaring people at events to get the crucial number of votes. And what is the crucial number? You don’t know that, of course, so it’s hard to tell in advance if you’re doing enough.

So, how to choose which awards to enter?

To ensure good use of your time and money, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is judging? 

If you are entering your products to be judged, ideally you want them to be judged by people who know about that type of product. 

Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often, for example, beer in food competitions gets judged by cheesemakers or ice-cream experts. We want someone who knows the style we’re referencing, the techniques used, and where it excels or falls short, not just whether they think it ‘tastes nice’.

Likewise you want your judges to be au fait with your industry and ideally your niche. If your product is judged by someone without the technical knowledge to properly assess it, will you feel satisfied with their conclusions?

This is why we mostly only enter beer specific competitions, which usually offer blind tasting, and where we are sure the standards are robust. We do also enter some food and drink ones where we enjoy being part of a community, or want to have a presence in a particular group.

Usually you can find a list of judges on the awards website, and can sense check that these people know what they are talking about. Ideally you would be familiar with a couple of names.

Who is on the panel will of course affect the ranking. Although judging should be technical, personal taste will always come into it, and favoritism too. You may find that you do brilliantly one year, and bomb the next, with the exact same product. Take it all with a pinch of salt, because it’s not a science.

  • What is the actual award?

What type of award it is will determine how it can be used. A trophy is nice, but unless you have a lot of customers visiting your premises, it won’t be seen a huge amount. If you have a product then a medal or badge that you can add to your labels can help you stand out on the shelf, particularly in food and drink. For businesses that rely on online traffic, whether for e-commerce or in the service industry, an industry accreditation, web-based forum or magazine commendation could give that beneficial seal of approval.

  • What weight does the award carry?

Think about your customers. If you sell both B2B and D2C as we do, there are two end customers.

Our trade customers are more likely to be aware of industry awards such as SIBA or the European Beer Awards or similar, and know that they are rigorous. That badge of excellence may help your initial sell to a new customer. Talk to key accounts and see what awards they consider significant. 

End customers-  in our case drinkers- tend to be less aware of these type of awards, although I’m sure Tescos wine department would tell you that medals do help sell just about anything. The greatest value to end customers will be more widely recognised schemes such as the IWSCC, Great Taste Awards or anything related to the BBC. 

  • What are the award categories?

It goes without saying that if there aren’t the right categories for you to enter, you’re on to a non-starter. But also beware of very popular categories, as the competition can be really tough. Our pale ale Speak Easy does win awards, natch, but the category is one of the most hotly contested, so it’s not a shoe-in. Either go for categories where you have really focussed your efforts and can demonstrate excellence with a cracking product or lots of evidence, or more niche ones where it’s easier to stand out.

A good guide to the level that you’re playing at is to look at the winners from previous years. If winners of that category seem of a similar size business or rank to you, then you’re in with a chance. If it’s all big brands or heavy hitters, then you’re better off looking for a ‘breakthrough’ ‘newcomer’ or ‘micro-business’ award.

Having said that, we won ‘Best Lager UK’ in the ISWC beer awards in 2017, just a couple of years after starting. It was a total surprise and really helped us make a name for ourselves and be taken seriously. So if you have the funds to go for it, why not.

  • What does it do for your brand?

For us something like the ‘Sparkly Living Blog Awards’ is not going to have much resonance with our customers – our business is focused on our expertise and our free-thinking defiant stance, so it’s not a good fit with our brand. But if your business has good traction on social media, and works heavily with visual content and lifestyle associations, then blog-led awards might be much more valuable.

Local awards run by magazines can be good for your general visibility in the local business marketplace, and getting your name beyond the bounds of your network. If you win something they’ll usually give you some decent coverage, so it’s often better value than placing an ad in the magazine (because you get dinner and wine too).

  • Is there additional value?

If you think you can get good mileage out of just being in the awards, using it for social media content, and taking the dinner as an opportunity to network in the industry, then it may well have value for your business. We always meet people and make new friends at an awards do, and you never know where new connections will take you.

Also it’s great to go with staff members, to take everyone for a team event where there’s a chance you will get some recognition for your collective work as well.

One other option can be to sponsor an award, or the whole of the awards. 

Sponsoring an award can give your brand good visibility, particularly if you think there will be an awards dinner with lots of potential clients in the room. The cost for this really varies, depending on the size and prestige of the event, but it may not be a bad investment. Instead of chancing your entry fees on scoring an award, you can look as if you are high enough up the chain to be benevolently overseeing a category.

It’s best to choose a category closely aligned to your business, but not the actual categories you would enter. This way, if you want to continue to sponsor the category ongoing, you would also be free to enter the awards as well.

Sponsoring the whole of the awards is best left to those with deep pockets and large businesses, and is often done by those who would not enter these awards but think there may be some good customers amongst them, ie solicitors and accountants.

The lowdown

Should you enter those awards?

In summary, with the number of awards available to enter, you have to step back and assess exactly what you want to achieve, and which awards would give you the best chance of reaching that goal.

You can’t enter all the awards out there, it would bankrupt you. So work out your priorities, what your customers will respond to, what will benefit your brand, and weigh up your options.

If you can’t calculate an exact ROI you can at least be clear-eyed about what you are spending your money on and what you hope to get out of it.

Powderkeg / Award-Winning Craft Beer / Exeter, Devon