MR CHRISTOPHER Quek was elated when he received an invitation for his firm Fanco Fan Marketing to apply for a top business award two years ago.

'I felt very proud because Fanco was being recognised,' he told The Straits Times. 'But I didn't know how to get in.'

The 46-year-old N-level graduate, who set up Fanco in 1998, spent two weeks writing a proposal for the Singapore Prestige Brand Award (SPBA).

But his joy evaporated when he found out over the phone several weeks later that Fanco, a wholesale distributor of ceiling fans, had not even made it past the first round to the interview stage.

'We were not good enough that time but I knew Fanco was strong enough to win,' Mr Quek recalls.

Undeterred, he decided to try again for the SPBA last year. But this time he sought external help.

After getting quotations from several branding consultants, Mr Quek finally settled on Mr Joseph Lee of Synesi Consulting who conducted market research, designed a new logo and helped set up a technician service department for Fanco.

A couple of months and tens of thousands of dollars later, Fanco clinched an SPBA Established Brand Award and also an SME One Asia award along the way.

Mr Quek has now set his sights on winning the SPBA five years in a row, and the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

He is among the growing number of small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) bosses seeking to boost recognition via winning prestigious business awards, which offer publicity and sometimes even funds, networking and business management advice.

But the intensifying competition for such coveted awards is making their quest increasingly difficult. 'Candidates do get more and more sophisticated over time,' noted Mr Kurt Wee, vice-president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) and the co-chairman of the annual Asme-Rotary Club Entrepreneur of the Year award.

'The awards organised by Asme are... not awards that can be 'bought' as only a select few who meet our criteria can emerge as winners,' Mr Wee added.

But that has not stopped firms from buying that extra polish.

Synesi's Mr Lee, who founded the consultancy a decade ago after leaving now-defunct business consultancy Arthur Andersen, told The Straits Times: 'The number of companies seeking help to do award submissions has increased slightly, at about 10 per cent from previous years.'

In tandem, the number of consultants offering award submissions as an additional service has also gone up by about half from a few years ago, he estimated.

These services do not come cheap. Consultants told The Straits Times that the market rate could start at $6,000 and run up to hundreds of thousands depending on the services sought.

But Mr Quek told The Straits Times that the cost was worth it.

'Winning the SPBA brought a lot of awareness to our brand. A lot of people who didn't know us before started calling. We had a 20 per cent increase in turnover.'

The changes Fanco made were not just for the award but also for the long term, he said.

SPBA committee chairman Audrey Yap said firms which engaged consultants would not be penalised in the judging process. 'It's not held against them. Some towkays (bosses) may have a genuinely good brand but don't know how to articulate it.'

But firms must beware of consultants who claim they can guarantee award wins since that is impossible, Ms Yap added.

Ms Chang Sook Cheng, managing partner of consultancy Treetops Ventures, said bigger SMEs may engage consultants if they feel they cannot spare the in-house marketing resources to prepare submission materials.

Treetops Ventures has helped ICM Pharma win the SPBA in 2009 and the Asme-Rotary Club Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2008, among other clients.

Ms Chang said she did not promise clients a guaranteed win.

'I can hand-hold, coach and motivate you, but only if you are experts in your own industry will you stand out. They must have achieved excellence before they go for the limelight.'