The Whitbread Book of the Year award was first held in 1971. At the
time it was relatively low-profile, but in the 28 years since, it has
become a major event in the literary calendar.
By the late-1990s, however, the awards faced media criticism and were
fighting for media interest against more than 300 annual book prizes,
including high-profile newcomers like the Orange Prize.
Whitbread decided that if its project was to survive, let alone prosper,
it had to be made more relevant to the company’s ’contemporary leisure’
Karen Earl Limited, which has worked on the awards since 1995, set about
rejuvenating the sponsorship.
To win more positive media coverage for the awards. To create links
between the awards and various Whitbread brands. To exploit the
corporate hospitality opportunities presented by the awards.
Karen Earl planned to inject the awards with the embodiment of
Whitbread’s key business ideas of ’enjoyment, contemporary and leisure’.
The awards were rebranded the Whitbread Book Awards, and emphasised the
concept of ’enjoyable books’ rather than elitist ’literary’ tomes. The
strapline was rewritten to reflect this: ’Celebrating and enjoying the
best contemporary books’, and the new identity featured on all
To reinforce the ’enjoyment’ theme, the judges were selected from a wide
variety of backgrounds, including newsreader Kirsty Young, children’s
presenter Floella Benjamin and Express editor Rosie Boycott. The judges
were encouraged to take up all media opportunities offered to them.
In the past, the awards had been criticised because there had been no
separate section for children’s books, so that it was very unlikely that
such a book could ever be the Book of the Year.
To counter this, an outright Children’s Book of the Year award was
devised for the 1998 awards, with a pounds 10,000 prize.
To launch the initiative, Karen Earl ran a nationwide competition to
select two schoolchildren to sit on a judging panel for children’s
The winners of this competition also won a prize of a lunch for their
whole class at a Pizza Hut restaurant - one of Whitbread’s brands.
The timetable of the awards was extended to allow for more media
It was also targeted to hit the headlines around October to December - a
critical book-buying time - to maximise benefits for the
Ever mindful of making the most of media opportunities, a broad,
celebrity-filled audience was invited to the ceremony, along with
editors, TV controllers and national diary editors.
The awards attracted a huge amount of media coverage, including front
page stories in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.
Of 623 cuttings anaylsed, only two contained negative comments.
Evaluation of the coverage is currently underway to analyse whether
Whitbread was mentioned as a leisure company rather than simply a
brewer, but these results are as yet unavailable.
A long sponsorship can go stale, but Karen Earl has done a good job
revitalising the Whitbread Book Awards. After 18 months of negotiations
with the BBC, the coverage of the awards ceremony on BBC2 is a huge
boost and put the awards up there with the Booker Prize.
Having such a timely winner in the late Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters was
also a boost, providing the media with a multitude of angles to cover
PR Team: Karen Earl Limited
Campaign: The Whitbread Book of the Year Awards
Timescale: February 1998 to February 1999