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In addition to QII's efforts, she believes the network effect of more food brands using the Gold Medal in their marketing also will raise its profile. "Based on the client list they're accumulating," she says, "we think this is going to be an up and coming thing."
After sweeping six categories last year, St. Louis-based Russell Stover candy began using its Gold Medal in TV and print ads last holiday season and plans to continue using them this year, says John O'Hara, vice president of marketing.
"Our upper management has embraced the Gold Medal promotions," he says. "It's a long-term commitment whenever you start changing packaging. I'm excited [QII is] going to be doing a lot more publicity with the Gold Medals."
A lot to chew on
By setting itself up as the food industry's arbiter of good taste, QII is biting off a lot. Staying on top of changing product mixes and food trends means judging many of its categories annually. And making its verdict mean something means maintaining culinary and ethical standards.
All products are judged double blind by a panel of professional chefs against pre-assigned criteria, which vary according to what's relevant to the category, including taste, aroma, freshness, mouth feel and overall impression. Products are placed in bar-coded containers to hide their identities. Judges enter scores into data-secure computers, using bar-code scanners to match the scores to the products. No group discussion is allowed, and results are tabulated instantly.
Judging panels include chefs certified at levels of Culinarian, Executive Chef, Chef Du Cuisine, Culinary Educator or Chef/Owner and must currently be practicing at a leading restaurant, hotel or resort. Whenever possible, the panelists include two of the fewer than 70 Certified Master Chefs in the U.S.
"When we set up our judging panel, we have no less than eight chefs on a panel," says S. Patrick Finney, national culinary director for QII since 2001. "These chefs come on a rotating basis and judge no more than twice a month The American Culinary Federation likes to tout themselves as the authority on food in America. We like to tout ourselves as the authority on taste. I utilize these chefs from the ACF and renowned chefs who may not be level-specific certified within the industry. But it's our goal to maintain a very high percentage of certified level-specific chefs on our panels, and that will range anywhere from a certified culinarian to a certified master chef So by maintaining that stature, it gives us a whole lot more credibility with the industry."
Once the QII panel has selected a winner in a category, it offers the manufacturer a license to use the Gold Medal in its packaging and other marketing. "If they choose not to license with us, there's no second place involved here," Finney says. "We put the entire category away for another year before we bring it back to life and re-evaluate it."
While categories are judged no more than once a year, some may not be judged again for several years if product activity doesn't warrant a new test. Manufacturers don't have to pay for, or even authorize, a test, but they do pay if they win and choose to license the marketing program. Payment amounts depend on the size of the category and the marketer. "We want to make sure a small organic or gourmet producer would have a fair opportunity to participate and leverage their win," Hagler says, "in the same way a very large cereal or frozen dinner manufacturer might."
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