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So You Want To Win an Innovation Award

Tips from the judges can help you avoid pitfalls that might cost you an NMMA nod
An NMMA Innovation Award can be a valuable marketing tool for established companies and newcomers alike.

An NMMA Innovation Award can be a valuable marketing tool for established companies and newcomers alike.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve sat on about a dozen NMMA Innovation Awards judging panels and have had a chance to see hundreds of entrants through these prestigious contests. Although the Boating Writers International panelists aren’t paid for their time (we do get transportation and accommodations), I love doing it to get a first look at the latest new products. Every year we see submissions from people who don’t understand the contest, haven’t read the rules or criteria, or who do a poor job of presenting their case why their product should win.

There are many reasons the Innovation Awards might be the best marketing money a company can spend. NMMA members pay $450, and it costs non-members $550 per entry. Winners are authorized to display the winner’s gold badge in advertisements, and it lends instant credibility, especially to new companies. Winners also get numerous mentions in press releases and on social media. Lillipad Marine has won three Innovation Awards, starting with the first in 2015 for its diving board, and showcases the award badges in its marketing efforts.

“When we won the first award with our Lillipad diving board, it was a big deal,” says company owner Corey Shaub. “We were a new company, and when we would cold-call a dealer, we would mention in the first sentence it won an NMMA Innovations Award, and they would stay on the line.”

At the very least, up to eight marine journalist judges on the Innovation Awards panel will get an in-depth look at your product. Additionally, at the show, more journalists and vendors will seek out contestants to see what’s new. Shows such as Miami and IBEX have so many booths and displays that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. So even if a product doesn’t win, it will still receive plenty of attention.

There are three annual NMMA Innovations Awards programs: IBEX in October, which was held virtually this year due to Hurricane Ian, the Minneapolis Boat Show in January, and the Miami International Boat Show in February.

“My advice to entrants is to trust that the judges have done their homework and to spend the in-person time demonstrating the product and answering questions,” says Brady Kay, Minneapolis Innovation Awards chair. “We appreciate those who get right to the innovation, instead of going into a long history of the company or covering what was already included in their submission copy and videos.”

He continues: “The biggest mistake I see is entrants who rush the application and include very little information and figure they’ll just cover everything in the presentation.”

Kay also encourages entrants to be upfront about similar products already on the market. “It’s always best to acknowledge competitors and explain why their version is better or improved over what already exists, rather than presenting it as a completely original idea,” he says.

Greg Sharrow (blue shirt) has used the Innovation Award program to promote his propellers. 

Greg Sharrow (blue shirt) has used the Innovation Award program to promote his propellers. 

12 Tips to Remember

1. Carefully read the guidelines, rules and instructions — all 1,800 words — and make a checklist as you read to make sure all aspects of the requirements are satisfied.

2. A video of the product is required. Keep in mind production value isn’t judged. Show us what it does, don’t just tell us. Promo videos with thunderous music and hype language don’t help and may lose a judge’s interest if it doesn’t show anything relevant to the innovation.

3. If a product solves a problem, explain what it is, how it adversely affects a boater, and how the product fixes it.

4. If a product isn’t market-ready or ready to be shipped in 60 days, hold it for the next contest.

5. Choose your category carefully. Although the judges have the discretion to move a product to a different category if it will win there, it’s rarely done.

6. Marinizing an existing product probably won’t win an award. But if the transformation took engineering, ingenuity and work, tell us about it. It makes a difference.

7. A good video script would be: Tell the judges why you made the product, what it does and what it does differently than similar products. Then show us.

8. If it’s a chemical product, show us independent testing results or a video of it performing what it’s designed to do. Don’t tell us it’s 30 percent more effective unless you can prove it.

9. If there is something similar on the market, tell the judges what is different about your product without bashing the competition.

10. If the product is similar to something you’ve done before, explain why it isn’t just an incremental improvement. A slightly bigger/smaller product, lower price, new color or new packaging won’t cut it.

11. Be flexible and be available for the judges’ visit. We once visited a multimillion-dollar boat at the scheduled time, and the only person there was someone detailing it.

12. If it’s a boat, don’t tell us all the other great things about the boat, like its stowage, number of cup holders, or its Corinthian leather. It’s not a best-boat contest. During your presentation focus only on what’s new and innovative.

Boating Writers International members select the winners, which are announced at IBEX, the Minneapolis Boat Show and the Miami International Boat Show.

Boating Writers International members select the winners, which are announced at IBEX, the Minneapolis Boat Show and the Miami International Boat Show.

Final Thoughts

Don’t assume that if you are the only entrant in a category that you’ll win; it still has to meet the contest’s threshold for innovation.

Also, please don’t confront the judges after the judging; it puts us in an awkward position, as we are forbidden to discuss our deliberations. If you have questions, go to the contest chair, who may or may not offer an explanation why a product didn’t win.

If you have questions, contact NMMA program manager Rachel Harmon at

 This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.



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