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AWARDS SPIRITS: Winning ways

Despite some consumer scepticism towards medals and awards, industry competitions remain an important element of the marketing mix for drinks brands. By Patience Gould

The exam question would definitely read: “Are competitions good for the drinks industry?” and one’s instant response would be to write, “well, yes and no”. “Yes”, because gold awards point to obvious quality and class of a spirit brand, and are a nice hook into the PR and marketing effort; but “no” when there are too many competitions, too many medals and the consumer has absolutely no idea as to the provenance of the competition – how it was judged and who it was judged by et cetera, et cetera.

“Many consumers are quite sceptical about medals and awards. In research I’ve heard them dismissed as ‘just an industry thing – they like to hand them out to each other’ – I have heard that so often,” says Diageo’s global marketing director, single malt whiskies, Nick Morgan. “And their scepticism comes from the fact that in many instances they have no idea what the competition is and what its authority is to give these medals.”

This is a moot point as it immediately puts the onus on the competition organisers themselves to promote to the consumer – a marketing initiative that has been conspicuously absent from the key operators on the circuit. “The question that has to be asked is: how much are the people who run these competitions prepared to educate consumers about them, and about what they really stand for? For the medal winners to do this is not credible, it would look too self-serving; it’s a task for the competitions themselves.”

The main events
In the main, the spirits industry recognises three award events, The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC), The San Francisco World Spirits Awards and the International Spirit Challenge (ISC). And here’s the rub: only the San Francisco competition is an independent – the other two are owned by UK trade publishing houses – the IWSC is now owned by Nexus Business Media, while William Reed Publishing hosts the IS. Both companies are rooted in the trade press domain, which makes gaining consumer publicity quite difficult and, it has to be said, expensive.

Of the three, the IWSC is the longest running and has garnered much respect from the drinks industry over the years. It’s interesting too that the company is making efforts to address the consumer chestnut. “We are looking at this,” says competition organiser Frances Horder. “Next year we are relaunching our website with a consumer angle and we have a raft of new consumer initiatives – but it’s too soon to talk about them.”

Another difficulty, it would seem, is where to draw the line in terms of medals. “I do believe that medals become devalued when there are too many competitions,” says Diageo’s  Morgan. “Not only consumers but brand owners can become a little cynical when it appears that competitions are being created or promoted willy-nilly simply because publishers, in the face of declining income from conventional sales – are looking at other ways of creating income streams.”

Tough talking indeed, but this is not to say that producers are not delighted to receive awards, and of course it’s the top ones, gold and above, which immediately spring into the marketing mix. Enter Ian Macleod Distillers, this year’s winners of the IWSC’s gold medal for its blended (non-aged) Scotch whisky, King Robert. “A gold medal is given great credence in export markets – particularly in the likes of Asia and Taiwan,” says director of marketing Iain Weir. And it’s not just the smaller independents that appreciate recognition of their brands.

Quality endorsement
“Awards are important to us as they represent a third-party endorsement of the high quality of our wide range of Scotch whiskies and premium gin,” says Chivas Bros international marketing director Martin Riley. “They also duly reflect the quality and the dedication of our master blenders and master distillers.”

While the IWSC and ISC are the masters on UK turf – the now six-year-old San Francisco spirits event has established itself in the all-important North American market. “It resonates more loudly with spirits drinkers in the US,” says Diageo’s Nick Morgan. “It is obviously a serious and well managed competition, but not on the scale of the IWSC in terms of the sheer volume of judges.”

Instant heritage
Since its highly successful relaunch, the Edrington Group’s Highland Park is no medal stranger when it comes to the US event. “We have found that the recognition given to the brand through the winning of awards, such as Distiller of the Year, awarded by the San Francisco World Spirits Awards in March this year helps enormously, both in terms of driving sales and brand positioning,” says brand controller Jason Craig. “It really sets us apart from other single malt brands and gives us something unique that we can reference when talking to consumers”

Overall Highland Park is a regular visitor – and medal-winner – to all three annual competitions as a matter of course. “My view is that awards give retailers the confidence to stock our products. Not only are they an internationally recognised endorsement of the product’s quality, but they reinforce the brand’s reputation,” says Craig. “Awards give consumers a real reason to choose our brand over other single malts, so there is more chance of trial if we are seen to be an award winner.”

When it comes to new products, there is widespread agreement that awards are a good springboard on to the international circuit.

“In some markets, medals awards and commendations can be absolutely critical to help new brands, which might otherwise not be seen to have the weight or credibility that comes with several hundred years of heritage – so it can be, in a sense, instant heritage,” says Diageo’s Morgan.

Works for whisky
Arguably whisky per se, and single malt Scotch whisky in particular, does lend itself to awards more than any other spirit – simply by the huge diversification of flavours. Diageo’s classic malts have all picked up golds, in particular the Skye single malt Talisker, which has also won the IWSC’s top honour, the trophy for best single malt, five times in the last 10 years.

Furthermore it’s success in these awards  that has accorded Japanese whiskies a growing reputation on the international circuit. “This is certainly true,” says European Japanese whisky distributor, The Number One Drinks Company’s founder and director Marcin Miller. “And while five or six years ago the Japanese whiskies paid homage to the single malt Scotch whisky they are now developing their own style – and that’s why they’re beginning to do better.” 

Alongside the three big award events there are the smaller ones, which have been coming to the fore over the years, like the World Whisky Awards (Whisky Magazine), the Malt Maniac’s Awards, as well as the Scottish Field Whisky Challenge. “We have also entered several other awards competitions over the last 12 months to focus attention on the repackaging that we carried out for the brand,” says Craig. “Award competitions are a great way to raise the brand’s profile and focus attention on the new design and if we are successful it then makes for a great news story.”

Vodka stakes its place

Of course, it’s not only whisky that benefits from these competitions, as can be seen by the number of vodkas entering the global fray, particularly from the Ukraine and Russia. For instance, this year alone there was a very strong entry into the drinks business magazine’s Vodka Masters from both countries, with the likes of Nemiroff (The Ukraine), as well as the Russian players Legend of Kremlin, Tovaritch, Diplomat and Parliament taking top honours. All these brands are looking to make it on the world stage and their participation in such events is clearly a very good starter.

© db November 2007

Judging integrity – the last word

The judging of any competition is obviously critical for companies to be confident about entering them.

Here again, the IWSC scores highly with Diageo’s Nick Morgan. “I would guess that the IWSC inspires most trust among brand owners and, possibly, wider audiences… Its judging procedures are reasonably transparent. It can call on a wide number of judges, who are both acting independently and also highly experienced in the category they are judging…

“The other aspect that works in their favour is that, in terms of single malt whisky, at least, they subdivide the category into numerous distinct classes. This appears to add complexity – and not all the categories entirely make sense – but this approach broadly tends to ensure a relative degree of fairness. It makes little sense to judge a splendid limited edition 25 year-old single malt in the same class as a 12 year-old, however excellent. It is truly comparing apples and pears. In this respect, the International Spirits Challenge has some way to go, I think.”

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