Every company craves free publicity. What better way to get it than by nabbing an award? Yet many small companies don't take the time to enter contests. While digging its way to $22 million in sales, Ruppert Landscape, in Ashton, Md., has made a practice of vying for a variety of accolades. The list includes at least a half-dozen award programs in which Ruppert figures its landscaping work has a fighting chance at honor. Past achievements range from the parochial (a City of Alexandria Beautification Award) to the high profile (an American Association of Nurserymen Award, hosted by the White House).

No matter what the trophy, Ruppert gets double the publicity value; the company issues a press release about its win, and so does the award giver. As a result, Ruppert has received coverage in three to four stories each year in major magazines and newspapers.

Granted, the awards don't just happen; Ruppert puts considerable time, materials, and training into competing. It spends $6,000 yearly, or about 10% of the public-relations budget, on entry fees and award banquets alone. One of the biggest payoffs? Its customers get to brag about their supplier. A few nice plaques don't hurt sales efforts or employee motivation, either.

Ruppert also benefits by entering contests in markets where it is less known. "This year I think we'll try for another environmental award to gain exposure in that niche," says Kathleen Obenschain, communications specialist.

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