If there is one thing that makes a supplier stand out in the crowd it is its ability to offer great customer service.

That's the verdict of grocery retail buyers, who picked this year's winners of The Grocer Branded Suppliers Survey based on ability to grow the category and the quality of the service they offer.

Our sixth annual survey, the biggest so far, recognises the best suppliers across 14 categories, as voted for by people who really count - buyers from supermarkets, wholesale groups and independent buying groups. Companies are judged on factors including account and category management skills, reliability and NPD, and the winners go through to the final stage of The Grocer's Gold Awards later in the year. There, they will compete for the prestigious accolade of being named the UK's best branded supplier.

Once again the industry's principal names dominate the rankings. Alongside CCE and Tetley, winners include PepsiCo, Warburtons, Procter & Gamble, UBUK, Mars UK and McCain, all of which have had success in previous years. New winners for this year include Cadbury Trebor Bassett, Coors Brewers, Kellogg's, Heinz and Dairy Crest.

With sky-high commodity prices causing friction between suppliers and retailers, never before has it been so important for suppliers to demonstrate to buyers a commitment to the long-term success of the retailers.

While size is the common denominator among the winners, it is how they use that size and their level of commitment to their customers that really impress, say buyers. Smaller suppliers pride themselves on being able to offer a more bespoke service to retailers but, when it comes to the crunch, many are not matching the capabilities of larger players in developing the category as a whole.

Coca-Cola Enterprises, for example, claimed the title of best branded soft drinks supplier for the fifth consecutive year because of its "excellent service levels and high quality account management team," according to its customers. And Tetley, which has usurped Unilever as the number one supplier of hot beverages, was commended for its "excellent category management, very good service levels and good customer service". Having a bestselling product is just not enough these days.

"It's about capability and the range on offer," says Anne Bordier, project manager at IGD. "In a study we found that retailers look for three main things in their suppliers: NPD and innovation, supply chain expertise and category management skills," adds Jim Brown, senior trading controller at Landmark. "There are just as many talented people in the smaller companies, but with nine out of 10 products failing, the bigger guys have got the resources to have a go at 20 different things with the hope that one or two may pay off."

It was the breadth of skills demanded by the big names that stood out for other judges. "I based my decisions on an overall sense of account management, marketing and availability," says Pat Collier, category buyer at The Co-operative Group. "The big brands can supply all those, and although I wasn't dissatisfied with the other suppliers, the bigger names stood out. It's all about having the right product for the customer and complementing this with promotions and good account management."

As trading conditions get tougher, buyers want to see their branded suppliers working hard to drive value not just for themselves but for the whole category. CCE was praised for its "great ability to develop brands such as Capri-Sun, Relentless and Oasis," and for the fact that it "is happy to work at category level to give unbiased recommendations when needed". And UBUK won points for "always submitting promotional plans and offering NPD, and having very proactive account management".

UBUK says it has focused on offering merchandising advice and guidance on how to segment the category to enhance sales and profits. "We have also dedicated time to coming up with bespoke promotional vehicles for individual customers and developing retail-ready packaging solutions for major multiples and independents," says a spokesman. "These include instantly recognisable, straight-to-shop-floor shippers and counter display units to reduce handling, enable quick replenishment and ensure attractive displays."

PepsiCo "has managed to halt the decline in sales by reducing salt, changing the oil and heavy promotional activity", according to one impressed buyer.

And Warburtons, which has developed a Perfect Bakery virtual tour to show its customers how the bakery aisle is shopped, and which produces an annual bread report, was deemed "consistently head and shoulders above its peer group, in products, service, insight and people", says Neil Franklin, category manager at Tesco.

Kettle Chips, which came a close second behind PepsiCo in the crisps, nuts & snacks category, was also praised for having a thorough understanding of its market. "Kettle has convinced people to trade up," says Bordier. One buyer, who voted Kettle as best in the category, adds: "Great brands and strong account management have delivered huge growth year-on-year."

The big brands didn't have it all their own way. Goswell Bakeries, which produces the Vogel's bread brand in the UK, and which came third in the bread category, won plaudits for its "highly professional account management, a sound understanding of customer needs and the UK bakery market together with consistency of product and service levels". Dorset Cereals makes its first appearance in the awards, also picking up a third-place spot, having skilfully exploited the growth of premium foods.

"There's a lot of work going on with premium retailing and innovation," says IGD's Bordier. "If a company can find the right market and deliver the right message, it's going to do well. Dorset Cereals is appealing to shoppers who are looking for premium goods, so it's a good example of retailers and suppliers offering a complete solution."

The large players have also managed to shine in the face of adversity, another factor that has also impressed buyers. In confectionery, Cadbury Trebor Bassett regained the top spot from Mars UK after successfully putting the problems it has encountered behind it. "In spite of a product recall and floods in its sugar factory, Cadbury has bounced back with NPD and strong promotional activity," says one buyer.

Dairy Crest, winner of the dairy and yellow fats category, has also excelled despite challenges. Last year the company recalled two million tubs of Clover because of mould, at a cost of £5m, but retailers say the company dealt with the situation pragmatically and efficiently.

Not all the big players have had success, though. In 2007 Unilever won the hot beverages and personal care titles, but this year only managed a third place in household. "Unilever has been going much more for profit," says one buyer. "It has said so itself. It doesn't feel as co-operative this year. It is putting prices up and I feel it is being a bit unfair."

In contrast, Unilever's rivals "are very flexible, do more deals and are more supportive", in the buyer's opinion. "They're putting in a bit more effort than Unilever."

P&G took Unilever's crown in personal care and held on to its top spot in household products, with one buyer citing its "flexibility and commercial understanding".

But Unilever is not the only previous winner to have been knocked off its perch. InBev UK and Carlsberg, respectively first and second in alcohol in 2007, have vanished from the line-up this year.

One buyer notes: "We had a lousy year sales-wise from both of them. InBev took the decision not to trade Stella and Tennent's, so it just wasn't competitive. And Carlsberg simply hasn't done anything interesting. Some more NPD would be very welcome in beer."

Coors, whose brands include Carling, Grolsch and Caffrey's, makes a return to the awards after four years' absence, grabbing top spot and eliciting praise from several buyers. "Coors has given us a fighting chance by controlling grey market supplies," says one. Another adds: "Coors has a good account management team that works with the whole category team to deliver effective promotions and marketing." Spending more than £30m on TV, poster and cinema ads no doubt helped Coor's cause.

Unilever lost out again in the ambient meal solutions category, as did Heinz. Tilda impressed with its new microwaveable lines and by "managing cost pressures on basmati rice and delivering volume growth", according to one buyer. Category winner Mars UK, meanwhile, threw its weight behind its microwaveable Uncle Ben's Express Rice, which "resulted in double-digit sales gains" for one buyer.

Elsewhere, Premier Foods lost out to Heinz in the canned foods category. Heinz's promotional support boosted sales in one retailer 30% , and its account managers were praised by one buyer for "working closely with us to minimise the impact of HP availability issues".

Bigger brands, therefore, may still be more popular than their smaller rivals among buyers, but size alone won't cut it. As our survey shows, an ability to build the category, give impartial advice, bounce back from problems and provide a silver service is more essential.

The challenge next year for smaller players will be to demonstrate that they, too, can be invaluable to their customers.nthis year's winners

Alcohol: Coors Brewers

Coors invested £30m in an off-trade TV, poster and cinema marketing campaign and sponsorship of Channel 4's comedy programming. It also ramped up in-store activity with bespoke promotions and advertising for Coors Light and produced tailored price-marked packs for the wholesale and retail channels, according to Adrian Davey, MD for off-trade. "Coors Light is a great example of how we worked closely with retailers," he says.

Second: Scottish & Newcastle Third place: Diageo

Ambient meal solutions: Mars UK

Rice, wheat and tomato prices may be rising, but Mars stuck to what it knows and pumped £20m into its 2007 marketing campaign. That drove sales of Uncle Ben's Express Rice up 32%, organic brand Seeds of Change up 16% and Dolmio up 5.7%. The Dolmio Bolognese relaunch was backed by a '100% good, honest ingredients' campaign that included TV ads and sampling.

Second: Tilda Third: Patak's

Biscuits and cakes: UBUK

UBUK was recognised by buyers for being a "focused supplier that backed its brands with good marketing support", including TV ads for its McVitie's Fruitsters and a new 'wholemeal' campaign for its digestives. The company has also continued to give its products a healthy makeover, removing artificial colours from its McVitie's and KP brands in September and reducing the sodium content in its biscuits and snacks in November.

Second: Burton's Foods Third: Northern Foods

Bread and bakery: Warburtons

Warburtons has increased its coverage with the opening of a distribution centre in Camberley and a £10m bakery in Wales. It also launched its first national TV ad campaign - part of a £20m marketing spend - and offered health-conscious consumers its new Healthy Harvest and Healthy Inside loaves. Retailers were also able to make use of a new Perfect Bakery virtual tool that shows how the category is shopped.

Second: Allied Bakeries Third: Goswell Bakeries

Canned foods: Heinz

Last year was Heinz's biggest for innovation in its canned foods portfolio, with 115 new lines and a 50% increase in the marketing budget. Sales of the new Snap Pots range are forecast to pass £18m this year and it already has a 5.5% share of the beans market and a 13% share of kids' pasta. A new customer strategy dubbed Heinz Means Better Business is focused on delivering this NPD to retailers along with advice to build what has been a struggling category.

Second: Premier Foods Third: General Mills

Cereals: Kellogg's

Packs of Crunchy Nut were recalled in August for quality reasons and a month later packs of Coco Pops Creations were recalled for containing nuts. But retailers were impressed with Kellogg's ability to "make something so disruptive run so smoothly". Under a new marketing strategy Kellogg's closed children's websites, abandoned toy giveaways and dropped licensed promotions in favour of word of mouth and digital marketing campaigns.

Second: Weetabix Third: Dorset Cereals

Confectionery: Cadbury Trebor Bassett

Last year Facebook and MySpace featured popular 'Bring Back Wispa' groups. CTB duly obliged and the relaunch, supported by a poster campaign, a website and PR activity, drummed up sales of £8.9m in 14 weeks, making it the top-selling product in chocolate singles. There are plans to continue the innovation this year with Cadbury Milk Tray, which will be launched in 200g (£2.99), 400g (£5.99) and 600g (£9.99) variants.

Second: Mars UK Third: Nestlé RowntreeThis year's winners

Crisps, nuts and snacks: PepsiCo

Walkers started last year by cutting the salt and saturated fat content of Quavers, Monster Munch, Squares and French Fries in a wave of activity, supported by a £5m campaign to highlight the changes. Later in the year it adopted a 100% British potatoes sourcing policy backed by a £7.5m marketing campaign and pack redesign. It also relaunched Worcester Sauce flavoured crisps and introduced a Cajun Spice flavour.

Second: Kettle Foods Third: Procter & Gamble

Dairy and yellow fats: Dairy Crest

Dairy Crest had a strong 2007 with sales of Cathedral City up 20% year-on-year, helped by the launch of a lighter variant and good performances from Utterly Butterly and Country Life Spreadable. Fortunately, a recall of two million tubs of Clover last year due to mould, at a cost of £5m, didn't dampen its performance, with retailers praising the speed and efficiency with which it dealt with the problem.

Second: Müller Third: Campina

Frozen foods: McCain

McCain combined health marketing with NPD launches in 2007, including McCain Potato Gourmet frozen luxury potato products. Buyers praised its "good advertising and promotions", including the It's All Good campaign. The company has worked with retailers on specific launches, including Sainsbury's with its Sweet Potato with Rosemary and Garlic, and with Tesco to identify product range development opportunities.

Second: Birds Eye Third: Glendale Frozen Foods

Hot beverages: Tetley

Tetley boasts 40% household penetration in the UK. In 2007, it launched a new TV campaign proclaiming Tetley, Everyone's Cup of Tea, which helped increase sales of Tetley Extra Strong by 25% and Tetley Redbush by 100%. "In 2007 we undertook extensive sampling campaigns in and out of store across our green, redbush and fruit teas, focused on opening these sectors up to everyone," says Simon Attfield, customer marketing controller.

Second: Nestlé Third: Typhoo

Household: Procter & Gamble

P&G has improved on two counts in particular in the household category. The first is with its Febreze aircare products, which have delivered "significant incremental sales in the past six months" according to Ian Radcliffe, customer business development director. The other is the company's Future Friendly initiative, which promoted consumer education on saving energy, water and packaging across Ariel, Lenor, Fairy Liquid, Fairy Active Bursts and Flash.

Second: Kimberly-Clark Third: Unilever

Personal care: Procter & Gamble

P&G's personal care division won eight of P&G's 10 gongs at the 2007 Product of the Year awards. This year it has already taken home more awards and recruited Jonny Wilkinson as the face of Gillette. Pantene Restoratives particularly struck a chord with retailers, says Ian Radcliffe, customer business development director. "We plan to continue bringing innovative products to market and will work even more closely with our retail partners," he adds.

Second: GlaxoSmithKline Third: Sara Lee

Soft drinks: Coca-Cola Enterprises

CCE set Coke Zero up as the sugar-free Coke for blokes in 2006. Last year its attention turned to the female market, with a £5m holiday giveaway and a £8m media spend on Diet Coke - up 44% on the year before.

Low-cal Oasis Extra Light was introduced and Capri-Sun was relaunched with no artificial ingredients and less sugar, backed by a £1m PR and ad campaign. CCE also launched Coke Orange was launched in a bid to drive summer sales.

Second: GlaxoSmithKline Third: Britvic