Finding herself on the hunt for a new challenge after an illustrious career in advertising, Sarah Connelly embarked upon the task of singlehandedly launching Product of the Year Australia (POY) into the Australian market.
POY is a global awards system, voted for by consumers, that recognises product innovation and has now been running for 32 years, in over 35 countries.
Fast forward ten years, the Awards boast an average of 46 winners in categories spanning food and beverage, household goods, health, beauty and baby care, and are 'the awards to win' for new product innovation in Australia.
With global brands such as Unilever and Colgate, large supermarkets including Aldi, IGA and Coles and boutique brands all looking to make their stamp on the market by entering year on year, the award growth has been exponential.
So much so, that Australian-made artisan food brand, Birch & Waite, saw a 33% sales lift after being awarded a POY Award in 2017 for their Rich Tartare Seafood Sauce. The brand's success story isn't alone; in 2016 both Nexcare and Mater Mothers saw a 273% and 55% sales lift respectively; the former for their Blister Waterproof Strips and the latter for their nappies.
It has been an interesting and varied career path for Product of the Year Director and mother of two boys, Sarah Connelly, who landed in Australia from the U.K in December 1999.
Starting out in Project Management, she worked for a large finance institution during Y2K and GST conversions. However, she was always interested in media and advertising and so made the leap from a very lucrative career into a small media house where she halved her salary, but found her passion. A love for all things media led to an 8-year career in the major publishing houses and culminated in the role of National Advertising Manager on Good Taste magazine, working closely with retail giant Woolworths.
In 2006, she accepted the role of Sales Manager at media and production house Now Screen and, after maternity leave in 2008, found herself looking for a new challenge. It was at this time that Sarah came across the opportunity to launch Product of the Year Australia (POY), a globally recognised award that has now been running for 32 years, in over 35 countries.
In the first three years, Sarah single-handedly launched and ran the business and, in year one, managed to recruit Lisa Wilkinson, former TODAY show host, as the award ambassador. Due to delays in licensing issues she had just three months to market and launch the first Australian awards and, in its first year managed to build 17 categories. The first award night, held at Quay in Sydney, hosted 110 guests. It was from this beginning that POY Australia became the 'award to win' for new product innovation in Australia.
The Australian awards now boast on average 46 category winners each year, which is on a par with much larger markets such as the U.K and US. The award night hosts over 220 guests and companies both small, medium and large participate in the hope of having the chance to use the coveted red logo to spruik their new and innovative products. Private label products from big retailers such as ALDI, Coles, Woolworths and IGA compete against numerous brands from the likes of P&G, Unilever, Colgate Palmolive and many other smaller companies looking to make their mark in the crowded and competitive FMCG arena.
Since year one, the business has grown at an exceptional rate and Sarah now works with National Business Manager, Rosanna Anderson who's objective is to continue this growth. POY also engages Research giant Nielsen to conduct the consumer research and award winning agency Agent 99 PR to promote the award winners and program.
As part of promoting the awards Sarah has appeared on A Current Affair, The Morning Show and Today Tonight.
Question: What inspired the creation of Product of the Year Australia?
Sarah Connelly: The inspiration came from the tried and tested business model that was conceived over 30 years ago in France. Having worked with FMCG clients for many years, I understood the challenge that companies face when launching new products and as a consumer I was always looking for help when deciding which new products to try. Product of the Year Australia provided the answer to these two problems and so I decided to give it a go!
Question: Can you explain what Product of the Year Australia is?
Sarah Connelly: Product of the Year Australia is an award program that rewards product innovation. It's unique in that it is everyday shoppers who vote for the winning products. Each year 13,000 Australian consumers cast their vote on products spanning a whole host of categories including food and beverages, health, baby care, beauty and pet food.
The awards aim to provide a shortcut for busy shoppers, saving them time and money by directing them to the very best products available across the market.
For manufacturers of the winning products, the award is a powerful marketing message proven to increase product trial, awareness, distribution and sales, on average by 10-15%.
Question: How did you go about launching Product of the Year Australia into the Australian market?
Sarah Connelly: The initial launch was rather hectic as I only had 3 months to do everything! However, luckily there was an immediate interest in the industry. Using the contacts I had made in my former role I communicated the program with email newsletters, flyers in industry publications, online marketing and many, many phone calls! The benefit I had was that it had a history of success in other markets, and this was a great help when trying to sell in the idea to major companies.
Question: How are the products nominated and voted on?
Sarah Connelly: Once all products have been submitted, a jury of industry professionals, press and bloggers trial and review each product to ensure that the innovation criteria are met and that the product performs to its purpose.
Products are chosen to go through to the next step; the research stage, where the product concept is introduced to thousands of shoppers who vote to decide which products are the best in their category.
The winning product in each category is then announced 'Product of the Year' and able to use the awards famous red logo and reference the Nielsen survey in all marketing communications for a whole year.
Winners are announced at our awards night in November, which is always a great night. A celebration of innovation, the brand managers, media and manufacturing companies all come together in Sydney to celebrate their wins and the evening is a chance for everyone to network with their counterparts, as well as industry experts, whilst enjoying a drink or two on us!
Question: Which brands always win Product of the Year in their category?
Sarah Connelly: It changes each year and I am still unable to correctly guess which products will win, even after all this time! Saying this, some categories such as Laundry and Skin care have been won 3 years running by ALDI. ALDI products come from a variety of suppliers in Australia, so although ALDI are the 'winners', it also means smaller manufacturers gain the credibility and benefit that comes from winning.
We also often see brands like Colgate, Palmolive and Garnier winning in hair care, dental and body care. With food, it's impossible to know which brands will come out on top.
Question: Can you share with us some of your favourite items from the Product of the Year?
Sarah Connelly: My favorites this year are ALDI's 24 hour lipstick, which is not only very effective but also a great price ($7.99). For a healthy alternative to rice and pasta, Coles has an amazing range of ready prepared vegetables such as cauliflower rice and zucchini pasta, and I can't go past Bulla Frozen Custard Ice Cream for a treat. Over the years, stand outs for me include Berroca Twist and Go, Red Rock Sweet Potato Chips, Garnier Micellar Cleansing Water and Voltaren Osteo Gel.
Question: You've said clever marketing is the key to business growth – what are examples of clever marketing?
Sarah Connelly: In our space the challenge is getting people to try something new, so clever ways of getting product into hands is what I see being the most effective. Mater Nappies, who won 2 years ago, did an amazing social media campaign where they asked customers to hold a Product of the Year party and send in photos. They sent out product and POY party merchandise to encourage these and they had amazing engagement from new mums around Australia.
Similarly, last summer Pantene had a stand at the beach offering trials of their 3 Minute Miracle Conditioner. People got to experience the product in a fun environment, which cements it in people's memories.
Question: What's next for you and Product of the Year Australia?
Sarah Connelly: At the moment we're focused on our 10 year anniversary and making it our biggest year so far! This means looking at our history, long term clients and how we can leverage this to encourage more and more entries. We are also focused on building our social media following and creating more opportunities in this space for consumers to trial and our winners to promote their products.
Interview by Brooke Hunter