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The Gold Standard

Posted on  | July 23, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Wine and spirit competition increases, offering retailers a golden opportunity.

While radio ads promoting wine and spirit brands are hardly a new phenomenon, a current nationally aired promo for Avión Tequila stands out. The ad presents the tequila’s qualities and image, of course, but the main thrust is the award it garnered: “Best Tequila” at an annual competition. And when Bacardi developed a print ad for their new Cognac, D’ussé, the creative showcases a Gold Medal, not critics’ scores. And if you watch Food Network, you have probably seen an ad for Black Box wine, touting 40 gold medals in assorted competitions.

Wine and spirit brands rarely make such widely broadcast use of honors bestowed at the numerous major and minor tasting competitions held annually, even as the number of competitions has been increasing. Such investment is significant, and it raises the issue of whether retailers can put these honors to better use as well.

The reasons why producers enter competitions are numerous and mostly self-evident. There’s nothing like a third-party endorsement when a producer can’t afford media campaigns or advertising in major magazines, says Jeff Runquist, producer of California’s Jeff Runquist Wines. “We look to the competition results to act as enticements for folks to try the wines,” he says, and so he features on his company’s website recent awards from the California State Fair and competitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Disclosure: I have judged at one time or another at all the competitions mentioned in this story.)

Maximizing Opportunities

Dori Bryant, runs two spirit competitions, Spirits of Mexico and Spirits of the Americas, for the London-based International Wine and Spirits Competition. She says that for any brand, the price of entry is a minimal investment that can yield significant and measurable results, as a marketing tool and for sales, and shows consumers that the company behind the brand has confidence in their product. “Entering a competition should be the first step any brand makes, as the results can be far-reaching, especially enhancing the bottom line where it counts the most,” she says.

Sell-Through at Retail

Another benefit of the competitions is how medal-winning wines can be promoted in real space (and even cyberspace) via retailers incorporating the POS tools various competitions provide, ranging from stickers to digital medallions to shelf talkers.

Jasper Russo, wine buyer and director of wine marketing at the 11-unit Sigel’s Fine Wines and Great Spirits in the Dallas area and himself a judge at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, says competition nods offer something unique. “Awards appeal to everyone,” he notes, but says that it also depends on the competition—the bigger competitions carry more weight with retailers and consumers both.

Each year after the Dallas competition, Russo selects 25 gold medal winners and features them just as the competition results are published in the Dallas Morning News. The competition has a fanatical following locally, and the stores fill with many customers shopping with the list of published winners in hand. Russo backs the selected wines with shelf talkers, stacks on the floor and other traditional point of sale techniques. But most important, he says, is the store and staff making a commitment to whatever competition they endorse and promoting the awards beyond stickers on the shelf.

As Russo points out, it’s crucial for a competition, no matter how legitimate, to win over retailers in order to broaden recognition with both suppliers and consumers, especially as competitions increase.

Rebecca Murphy, owner of the Dallas competition, says wineries could certainly do more to promote prestigious awards, and thinks retailers could best use these competitions by focusing on the most prominent or near by. Supporting the Dallas competition is pretty straightforward for Russo and Sigel’s; his personal experience as a judge and knowledge of the process validates it for him, and then there’s the strong local connection that Murphy mentions.

Competitions can be extremely beneficial for smaller producers, but Chip Tate, president of Balcones Distillery, Waco, TX, says the bar has moved: “In my experience, when you walk into a meeting, bragging about a single award, given the number of medals and competitions, goes nowhere. If I can say I have 70 international awards, that makes a difference.” A recent raft of awards has certainly helped Balcones sell out the 6,000 or so cases of whiskey they bottle each year.

Spirits producer Sazerac uses its multiple awards for all its brands as a leading media promotion. Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace, says the three or four competitions his team enters each year serve not only to help the whiskies stand out in the marketplace, but also as a way to make sure that the company’s standards stay high.

“We want to make sure that we continue to make some of the best whiskies in the world, and positive feedback from these competitions is important,” says Comstock. People associated with the brands are gratified when they learn their products are winners; having the opportunity to have their spirits tasted blind by experts year in and year out is an inexpensive route to quality control. “If something like George Stagg wins a few top awards and then doesn’t win for a while, the folks at the distillery would probably want to take a look at what they are doing,” he says.

Backing Winners

“We’re delighted to see that smart companies are increasingly understanding the marketing benefits of spirits competitions, like those operated by Ultimate Beverage Challenge, to help promote their brands,” says Paul Pacult, director of both a spirit and wine competition under the Ultimate Beverage banner. Making use of the marketing collateral that competitions provide—free artwork and medallion icons, for instance—is simply good marketing sense, he says, and he encourages companies to use them in advertising, retail POS, websites and in social media.  

Getting behind a competition requires paying attention to annual schedules, anticipating results and buying or promoting on the basis of final awards. Wilfred Wong, cellar master at the nearly 120-store BevMo! Stores in Arizona, California and Washington and a frequent judge at competitions himself, uses awards in tandem with his own selections. “It’s another accolade that legitimizes a wine or spirit in the customer’s mind,” he says, though he’s careful to exclude competitions seen as too generous.

As a retailer, Wong appreciates the way competitions include many palates to provide awards, and how the predictable arrival of awards at the same time annually makes it easier to plan and respond to them, but he thinks that a high score from a noted wine critic still means more to customers than a gold medal.
That’s partly the product of overworked retailers finding it easier to clip or copy ratings, rather than wading through lengthy lists of winners when competitions release notices about hundreds of brands assessed. In fact, with 90+ scores by critics reaching a level of numbing frequency in our market, it can be argued that medals, conferred by groups of judges, represent a refreshing/retro alternative.

Aligning medal winners with store inventory may take some work, but it is nonetheless a golden opportunity to share the opinions of some of the best palates in the country. As competition, especially from giant retailers, increases, stores smartly employing every freely provided advantage, like legitimate awards, may be the ones who end up with the gold themselves.

Making the Most of Medals

Think local. Winners from local competitions and/or local wines that have excelled in large competitions have natural appeal for shoppers.

Lift the underdogs. Competition awards can have a disproportionately large impact for unheralded grapes (such as Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah) and lesser-known producers.

Familiar faces, fresh acclaim. When a household name wins multiple awards or a top prize in a major competition, think of it as an opportunity to reinforce a crowd-pleasing favorite.

Winners make for good content. Besides using in-store POS, eNewsletters and store blogs can be a great place to remind customers of medal-winners you have in stock.

Showcase value. Medal winners under $10 are a good bet to highlight, even if the medals earned are not gold; the third-party endorsement can make them seem like real bargains.

Surf for winners. Many competitons have made searching through their results online easier than ever, and have functions that let you print POS materials. See how your current inventory matches up with some of the most respected competitons, like:

Critics Challenge
criticschallenge.com

Dallas Morning News Wine Competition
dallaswinecompetition.com

Riverside International Wine Competition
riversidewinecompetition.com

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
winejudging.com

San Francisco International Wine Competition
sfwinecomp.com

Ultimate Beverage Challenge
ultimate-beverage.com


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