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Corporate awards:  Buyer beware!

What’s in an award? 

 People are impressed by awards. At the very least they think someone must be good at something if they have won an award! However, many of the awards in the consumer and business worlds are not as they may first appear.

silver trophy

And awards seem to be popping up all over the place. Just what does “award-winning” mean these days?

When a company receives an award, one may be forgiven for thinking that a vigorous evaluation process has been followed. However, in some cases, to obtain an award, companies simply submit their product and pay, regardless of any ensuing process.

For example, if a company has won the “best sausage” product award it could well be that only five companies entered when there may be 250 different sausage brands that could have entered! These are “paid for” awards with a very high chance of winning.

Likewise, many business awards are run the same way. Some businesses even get emails out of the blue telling them they have won an award all they have to do is pay. And some of them do pay..

Fee-free or “pay to play”?

Some awards invite submissions and have a thorough judging process but are still “pay to play”. Marie Clare, for example, charges £300 for businesses to enter their awards. Zoe Chapman of Kiddiwhizz is not adverse to paying to play and looked to enter but didn’t go through with it. She says this was because:

“I luckily emailed them first and asked if my product would even work within a category but they said they’d make a children’s category next year instead which was kind of them to be honest and great I’ve had an impact on the creation of a new category.”

Valuable visibility

Zoe feels that as a start-up, exposure, validation and establishing your brand within the right market/platform are extremely valuable. So, when you enter an award, you are not necessarily doing it to win but to be featured amongst other more established or popular brands. She comments “It shows you are serious and are valuing yourself and your product to be in the lineup. I chose one award that I felt would be most beneficial to pay for and saw it as a test to see how my product was received because there was nothing else like it on the market. I therefore didn’t know if it would go in my favour or not. I probably wouldn’t pay if there were tonnes of similar products to mine.”

Zoe goes on to point out that many small companies spend far more on influencers or Facebook ads with the same risk of not knowing if it will affect sales. Christina K Pat agrees and says that they are a new brand in the baby industry and “the reality is it’s one of the only ways to get good brand awareness, It’s also often cheaper in the long run than running paid ads”. Zoe advises:

“Choose carefully and only do it if you think you’d benefit from it in some way, if not then spend the money on direct advertising instead. Be mindful that there’s a reason all the big brands win usually and that’s down to money. The customer will never know this though, they will see the winner badge and think that’s a sign of trust. That’s the validation you’d be buying if you entered a paying award.”

Paying for the party

Stacey Calder, who owns the Business Success Network has won Stacey Caldernumerous awards, most recently The Business and Community Award at the Leamington Business Awards in 2017. For five years she ran the national “Networking Mummies National Business Recognition Awards” (now known as the “Family Network”) and does not believe you should ever have to pay to enter awards.

“Yes, buying tickets to the event itself is normal but I’ve seen ‘awards’ where you have to pick your marketing packages in order to get an award for the award you’ve won! This screams money making scam to me. I’ve always prided myself on creating quality awards with a quality process and judging panel and a black tie event to recognise the finalists. Sponsorships and advertising was available but never forced on people in order to win.”

Stacey now focuses on helping people on their marketing assets including helping people enter awards. “But never a pay to play award!” she is keen to emphasise!

She warns against companies that help you pick the awards and help you become a finalist for a further fee too. Anne Larchy was approached by a company a couple of years ago which did just this. Helping you to become a finalist for extra money. Awards Intelligence is such a company boasting that “The industry average win rate is estimated to be just 10%. Our average win rate is currently over 60%.” And lists the companies it works with.

Merit counts

Rachel Murphy, who owns Authentic Baby Photography, says that “if you have to pay to enter then you haven’t earned that ‘nomination’ by merit. I see them simply as money-making opportunities for the organisers and don’t hold any value to the awards if someone shares that they have won!”

Kirsten Whitehouse runs Green Tiger Events and has worked on many award ceremonies. She argues that the paid for ones are often seen as the better awards:

“The entry fee is often nominal but it is to stop companies from randomly applying for any award going – don’t underestimate the admin work needed to work through applications etc. Even an entry fee of say £50 will focus entrants to put in a well thought through entry instead of using the “one size fits all” approach which we see in most of the free awards.”

However, Leila Vibert-Stokes runs her own textile design business and says it really depends on what the award is and why you are paying for it:

“For me it boils down to this – are your clients going to be impressed by you “winning” the award, even if it is a dodgy scammy one? And that really depends who your clients are.”

As an example, she says that Dezeen is known as the world’s leading modern architecture magazine. They charge between £100 and £200 for an award entry (depending on size of the company) but she says

“If you have an architecture, product design or interior design company in their style, it would be foolish not to enter. They charge but they also hire 40 of that year’s leading architects and artists to judge it and it’s a great award to win”.

However she is not a fan of others, calling them “scams” or “so unknown they are irrelevant.”

“Some say you have won an award for a category that is so completely obscure it sounds specifically made up for your business and ask you for £500, or more, for the award and listing.”

Toddler Born Wild owner, Hannah Saunders, has won numerous awards. Although some of them have been pay to enter, she stays away from any that are over £200. “It’s unfair that they charge so much. Mumsnet are the same for their ‘approved by’ scheme. It means the best don’t win, simply the big guys who can afford it, and so the cycle continues!!”

Watch out for scams

Jennifer Corcoran from My Super Connector has won seven awards, including currently being the holder of the title “number 1 marketing adviser in the UK” from Enterprise Nation and the Social Media Award from the Successful Women in Business network. None of these are pay to play and she has strong feelings about what she calls “money racket” awards:

“I’ve ‘won’ a litany of dubious titles. You never enter them and suddenly find yourself a winner.  You can then pay for the privilege of added bonuses!”

She cites Corp Today, which sent her an email with “As Requested: You are a winner!” in the subject line. She had not requested or enquired about any award with them. Packages ranged from £600 to £995. For £995 Jennifer could “win” a package including front page coverage, editorial, trophy, plaque and logo.

While we were corresponding she received another email from Insights Success Magazine offering her a branding package to be one of “The 10 Most Successful Businesswomen to Watch, 2021” at the tidy sum of $1500 US!

When is a hotel not a hotel?

On its website Lux Life professes to undertake extensive research. However, Jemma Zoe Smith was a little confused to receive communication from them telling her that her hotel had been nominated for an award. Very little research would have told them that her business is The Education Hotel!  Although Luxlife’s website states “We are proudly not a pay-to-play enterprise with all winners encouraged to select a promotional package, be it commercial or free of charge.” The communication Jemma Zoe received would suggest otherwise.

She says “At first skim I was excited to hear that we had been recognised as our team has been working really hard to get The Education Hotel known within the education sphere. This turned to annoyance and then just disbelief that they claimed to have done ‘extensive research’”.

Daniel Humphrey from The Summerton Whisky Club wanted to see where this would go last year, so he went through the process, opting for the non-paying option. They won an award, but there was no mention in the magazine. Three months later they got in touch again, with another set of awards…

Humphrey says “I feel this is a repeated scam that isn’t anything to do with the magazine The idea of a luxury focussed magazine offering awards to businesses that go above and beyond the norm is great, but having won and not been featured in the magazine, and then a couple of months later being informed of a new round of awards, for which they would like payment makes it look like a scam. It has definitely impacted on the reputation of the brand.”

Promises promises

Donna Shingler from Wicks of Water Orton regales an interesting case! She received an email notifying her if she would like to be considered for the Central England Prestige Awards, for which shortlisting was open. The email promised “Each winner will receive coverage in the awards magazine as well as the website, press releases…”

She got a phone call less than two weeks later to tell her she had “won”. Donna played them at their own game though. When she received a phone call to say that the award event was on and she didn’t have to pay to attend, she went.

“My name was highlighted on a spreadsheet of 100’s of businesses!  I was taken into a room and was given the trophy by some scruffily dressed man, no idea who he was!  I was told I could use their stock trophy, but would have to pay for one of the media packages if I wanted my own.  If I wanted copies of the photos I had to pay for those too. So I gave them my phone, and asked them to retake all the photos on my phone. I smiled sweetly and left! They have never sent me copies of the professional photos which they promised they would, and I have heard nothing since!”

A judge’s view 

With such an increase in awards, is it diluting the meaning? Many awards now pile the categories high for entry to increase entrants and then charge for the “do”.

Karen Webber, an ethical marketing coach from Goodness Marketing, has judged on many awards. She judges on some pay to play awards for which she feels the scoring system is robust and which charge a reasonable fee for entries, so that costs are covered. She says:

“If those with huge budgets for awards entries flood categories, it drowns out those with quieter voices whose work may be just as or more impressive. That’s a problem. Ultimately, I would like to see more equity in awards with under-represented businesses and those owned by people with intersectional identities given the option to enter for free. Judging panels that are diverse – both demographically and in terms of background (it’s not just those who have worked for top agencies who know their stuff, for example).”

Awards for free?

Is there a need for charging? Here is just a small selection of small and large awards that do not charge, demonstrating that there really isn’t a need to charge.

Headline Money is the Oscars for financial journalism. It is free to enter and you pay only to attend the award ceremony. But if your business doesn’t pay for you or a business doesn’t pay for you as a guest then Headline Money pays for you.

Muddy Stilettoes is a blog franchise around the UK and their awards – championing local businesses – are totally free to enter and win.

The Great British Entrepreneur Awards  has a number of categories, such as sustainability, made in the UK etc. They are run in partnership with Starling Bank and are free to enter.

The Small Awards celebrates small businesses and does not charge an entry fee.

The University of Edinburgh runs the Inspire and Launch, Grow awards and they support entrants and provide generous prizes.

Small Biz 100 Awards highlights 100 small businesses, one a day for 100 days, leading up to Small Business Saturday 2021.

IPSE the Association of the Independent Professional and the Self-employed awards are free to freelancers and the self-employed community.

Food and Drink Federation awards are free to enter for products too.

And the award for most expensive award goes to…

Product of the Year charges £18,000 to enter its award! It also claimed that the prize was worth more than £800,000. See ASA investigation forces change of wording on awards claim from my complaint.

Established in 1987 in France, Product of the Year is a global company operating in over 40 countries around the world.

I made a further complaint in November 2021 and this was informally resolved and announced 26/01/22. Should awards companies get awards for misleading claims?

What do consumers think?

When I asked consumers what they thought, many people didn’t realise that some awards were scam-like or “pay to play”, which diminishes the number of entrants and excludes many small businesses.

Gillian Herbert says that she wasn’t aware that fake or “pay to play” awards existed. She remarks that “I’m swayed by gold and silver rosettes on bottles of wine but now I know that perhaps only two of them were entered, I’ll just stick to what’s on offer!”

Perhaps the public is becoming too wise or too cynical about awards. Angela Peacock says “I no longer trust award systems because they are not impartial. They buy their ribbons and certificates.”

In the end, it really is a case of “customer beware”!

If you are swayed by “award winning” then check the background of that award. How many entrants were there, what was the judging process and did companies have to pay to enter?

Free help for businesses

If you really want to increase your reach and sales you don’t have to buy awards to do it!

It takes 5 times as much to gain a new customer to retain one. So work on turning your customers into superfans who do much of the heavy lifting for you!

Join my free Facebook Group Increase Sales through Customer Service: Compassion, Care and  Integrity  A private group where you can give and get support, advice and share good practice on how to improve customer service.

Free download Customer Service 5 ways to get rave reviews & referrals a few tweaks to your customer service can help you reduce the risk to your company’s reputation, finances and impact on customers and increase sales.

Customer Service how to turn customers into superfans raving about your products/services

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By Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow

Consultant | Author | Speaker | Blogger | Presenter | Journalist
Helping to make, prevent and deal with complaints

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