When Christelle Guibert was appointed CEO of International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) in 2019, she knew she had enormous weight on her shoulders.
Steeped in history, IWSC is one of the oldest wine and spirits competitions in the world founded in 1969 and receiving a top accolade from the competition was likened to winning an “Oscar” in the drinks trade. But like many legacy institutions, it faced headwinds: wine and spirits competitions have mushroomed out everywhere globally and locally, and in the age of social media consumer buying decisions are swayed more by media savvy KOLs than award stickers.
In an interview with Vino Joy News, not shy of the challenges, Guibert acknowledged that in her over two-decade long career in the wine industry first with Waitrose and later as Tasting Director for Decanter, there has been “more changes and happenings” in the world of drinks competition.
One of many is competition’s waning influence over consumers. Citing research findings, she says competition award sticker used to be one of the top five criteria for consumer wine buying decisions, but now she laments it has become “more or less meaningless”. One of the chief reasons was due to lack of professionalism for many of the newer competitions. As a result, they ended up confusing consumers.
Meanwhile, the omnipresent social media and influencers are wielding more power over consumers, especially younger generations. “Buying decisions for consumers today are more driven by KOLs, influencers, friend recommendations. They follow people they like and trust, and they use that as a level of recommendation,” she explains.
More Than a Competition
To rejuvenated IWSC, which is no small task for a half-century-old institution, Guibert spent the first few months on the new job analyzing what the competition has done, and went back to its root, which is to serve producers. “At the end of the day we are a marketing tool for producers, whatever we do we need to fulfil our clients,” she concludes. “Problem is that a lot of competitions just has one formula and we don’t see ourselves doing that.”
The competition did not just stop at judging and medal awarding. What it has grown to become is somewhat like a one-stop marketing service for wine and spirits producers where it offers comprehensive business support from PR, marketing, distribution to tailored post award consultation.
“We see entering the competition as the first step,” she states, “we are more than a competition. We help producers to achieve a goal, and everyone has a different goal, be it to benchmark, to test new product, to look for importers or to raise brand awareness.”
Different from similar competitions, it also prides itself as the only industry award to share constructive feedback on non-winning entrants. “The producers that don’t do well are as important as the winners, and we give a lot of feedback to them. We do 65 wines max a day, so you can expect a lot of discussions on the wines,” assures Guibert.
One of the biggest competitiveness of IWSC as Guibert extols is its high-caliber, buying-focused expert judges. “Our judges are our biggest assets and 95% of the judges are buyers, consisting of off-trade, on-trade, and people that make decisions,” she states. “It’s rewarding to have them, and buyers look at wines differently, they look at wines from a commercial perspective, potentially listing the wine. They are up to date with trends and industry news, and they also come to IWSC with an idea of discovering new wines.”
In a step to further immerse judges in wine producing regions, connecting them directly with local producers, one of the key changes she made was to conduct some of the IWSC judgings on site in selected wine regions. It invites established judges in the chosen country, to taste and award wines submitted from wineries across the country. The most recent judging as Guibert told us took place in Georgia, the cradle of wine.
As for KOLs and influencers, Guibert sees more synergy between IWSC and the new generation of marketers. “They are reaching more consumers, and bringing more consumers to wine, and we have to work alongside them, and what we do complement what they do,” she says dismissing them as competitions. “It’s healthy, and it has pushed us to be more innovative.”
In fact, she embraced the new generation of media savvy influencers. The organization works with a network of influencers on campaigns and promotions, and conducts Instagram Live to raise awareness on the awards and wines. The only difference as she notes is that wines that are judged through IWSC are vetted by an expert panel of professionals first and foremost before being promoted.
Now three years into her role, after revitalizing the competition, orchestrating its milestone 50th anniversary celebration and steering it through the pandemic, she is content with where the 53-year-old IWSC is today. “It did not innovate and kept doing what they did for 50 years so I revamped it and looked at it how it could be different, and we feel now we are in a good place with a new team,” she relieved.
Asked about her visions for IWSC in the next five years, she replied with resolve: “We never rest on laurels, and we continue to listen to our clients, consumers, trends and make sure we are ahead and relevant. We see ourselves continue to evolve and innovate.”