Cheese Competitions In The
Context Of Marketing

Volume 133, No. 41  - Friday, April 17, 2009

Does winning in a championship translate into sales? Does it work for those taking third, the same as those taking first? Probably not.

Do distributors and store buyers really change their mind and choose to buy just because you won an award in a competition? Not unless there are other compelling reasons for them to buy.

Short of winning best in show, what is the real value for marketing of entering a contest?

No Guarantees
At the risk of being controversial, something I am never accused of, being the best on any given day is not a guarantee of truly being the best.

Winning a competition is a very dicey affair to begin with. A lot depends on things out of your control: who the judges are, what kind of day they had, how discussions between them go.

One judge may prefer cheese with slight bitterness, while another prefers it sweet. Judges, like all of us, are open to group dynamics. Judgements are relative. There is no hard rule for how many points a “defect” deserves. For one what may be a full point is a half point for others.

Of course we would all prefer to win. We live in a culture that worships winning. But winning is only the most superficial use of competitions.
From a marketing standpoint, winning alone does not justify entering even if you win best in show, (which no matter how good your cheese is, is never guaranteed.)

Yet, I always encourage clients to enter. Why? What is the best use of competitions? How should a company look at entering from a strategic marketing point of view?

Marketing success requires a marriage of good practice and a clear understanding of market perception. To succeed, it is not enough to make a good cheese. You have to understand how the market perceives your cheese as well, and what the market is looking for, at all levels.

Everything is about context. Even if you understand how consumers perceive your cheese, before it arrives on a shelf where they can buy it, it has to pass through buyers at distributors and store buyers, all of whom may perceive your cheese differently than either you, or consumers.

Certainly winning helps, but of greater value is the opportunity to learn from who the judges were, what area of the industry they represent and how they perceive value, who they choose to win and why, and if you are lucky enough to be able to get copies of the judging sheets for your cheeses, what they thought about your cheese on that day.

Problem is, if like me, you tend to react defensively. You take it personally, as if the condition of a cheese or the opinion of a judge is a reflection on your innate worth as a human being. To set the record straight, I am sure there are wonderful human
beings making cheese badly.

To succeed, to market strategically, you cannot afford the luxury of letting yourself take things personally. Even if you win, who were you competing against for instance? Were the best cheeses in the competition or did you win by default? Does the fourth or fifth place cheese sell mountains more of cheese than you do, and why?

When defensive our blood leaves our brain and goes to our legs and fists. It’s called the fight or flight syndrome. It’s natural, but not so useful. Judges are not tigers ready to eat us in the jungle, but professionals doing the best job they can to judge a whole bunch of cheeses in a very short window of time.

A well crafted marketing strategy depends on the ability to see things as they really are, not as we want or believe them to be, both within our companies and without.

Ask the Right Questions
The best way to get blood back where it is needed is to ask questions. To truly make a competition worthwhile and gain from it an advantage that translates into profit, try asking yourself the following questions, whether you won, lost, or finished in the middle of the pack:

• What is the difference between how you perceive your cheese and how the judges perceived it?

• Can you find a way to see your cheese through their eyes?

• What segments of the industry do the judges represent? Were they buyers, professors, producers or writers? How can you use their perceptions to better understand what the segment they represent is looking for?

• If you are lucky enough to be able to get a hold of the judging sheets, what “defects” did the judges find?

• Has anyone mentioned these as a defect before? (if anyone has there may be something to it)

• If you taste objectively, can you see what they are getting at?

• What does it teach you about how your cheese may be perceived?

• Is it important enough for you to change the cheese, or could a packaging change or marketing change make a difference? Perhaps your cheese looks too artisan to be considered a value, for instance, as you may be in a category that values competitive pricing.

• If you won, why did you win? Winning by itself is useless for marketing and future sales unless you understand it in context. Knowing how and why can help you repeat.

• What cheeses won in your category, if you didn’t? What cheeses won best overall?

• Based on your perceptions, what do the winners tell you about what was expected by the judges in that competition and what can that tell you about the qualities they are looking for, depending on the segment of the industry they come from?

Let me give an example. While consulting with a very large state’s marketing board, I was asked to advise some of the newer producers on which categories they should enter to have a better chance of winning. Obviously, winning the most awards is of great interest to state marketing boards.

One producer I advised produced a very unique, powerful Gouda. The producer had entered a number of times in the Gouda category, and never won. He/she was frustrated and resigned to losing again.

I advised her/him never to enter under Gouda. Their cheese was unique, farmhouse, and quite different from the standards of identity that governed the Gouda category, and the very strict academics that were the judges in this competition at that time. I suggested they enter under an Open or Farmhouse type of category. They won their category. Why?

From an objective point of view, their cheese was not what was expected from a Gouda, but the very qualities that led to a perception of defects in the Gouda category, restricted as they were by standards of identity, were highly valued in the open categories with no standards of identity.

While losing makes us defensive, winning makes us feel like God is on our side. Both are pitfalls.

The producer mentioned above did not take the process to its logical conclusion. They did not look right down to the roots.

One of the judges had commented that their cheese, while full of flavor, was a little bitter. They took this comment defensively and closed their mind to it. They questioned how that one judge could have cost them a chance at winning best in show, and missed the only valuable point.

While their cheese was greatly favored by distributors and store buyers because it had a powerful flavor that stuck in the memory, contrasting with the overwhelming number of less powerful cheeses, consumers found the cheese to be bitter, like the judge, and they were unable to translate a temporary surge in placements into long term sales.

Perhaps, had they asked the right questions, they could have lessened the bitterness without losing flavor, made everyone happy, and grown their sales dynamically.

The right questions put results in context, clarifying the difference between our perceptions, the perceptions of intermediaries, and those of consumers, and help to keep the blood in our brains so we can think strategically.

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot Economy
dot Even The Best Laid Plans Go Astray
dot Root Causes: Communication
dot Partners
dot Diamond Cutting:
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
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Visit Neville McNaughton

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