by Hans Ebert
It might sound silly, but for horse racing to be more than it is today, and much more than it should be tomorrow, it must be more than only about horse racing. It must be more than where words and terms like “progress” and “perception” and “brand personality” often get held up without an inside run, and with the sport either refusing, or unable to see the forest for the trees, while believing that cosmetic shee shee Un-David Bowie ch-ch-changes will bring about real change and give the sport a much-needed kick up its backside in order for it to reach a wider audience. Having some ‘live’ music after a race meeting might mean a few column inches in the music press, but this, or more “fashions on the fields”, or that Daddy Warbucks term called “eye candy”, and some more apps for the rabid punter isn’t exactly pushing the creative envelope and taking horse racing onto a bigger playing field.
In many ways, it’s horse racing’s failure to understand what real marketing is and the difference between being customer-centric and consumer friendly which results in a chain reaction of knee-jerk reactive promotions versus bona fide marketing- the marketing of creative ideas. Replicating old advertising ideas from other industries and believing these to be relevant as this is what “adverts” are supposed to look like, not only shows boffins at work and in the wrong jobs, it is what continues to keep the sport in its little box with not many wishing to play with it. Why? Other industries- and their brands- see this work filtering through, meet the boffins behind it, and any plans they might have had for working together for any win-win situations disappear. Fast.
For horse racing to stop galloping off on its own with half-cocked ideas and looking around and seeing that no one else is coming along for the ride is to realise that the sport needs to unlearn much of what it’s been doing, and learn that in this consumer-driven world, it’s all about partnerships with all those brands that are still to even look at horse racing as a possible way to create more awareness for their own marketing needs. In other words, customer-centric must first become consumer friendly because being customer-centric before being liked as a product is putting the cart before the horse. Solving the puzzle of making horse racing likeable and liked- and consumer friendly- is not only a wonderful challenge to get one’s head around, it can take the sport to where it has never gone before. Horse racing needs its Sally Field Moment. It needs to be liked. Really liked.
Yes, marketing horse racing to the next generation of racing fans must “engage” and disengage and marry and divorce all you want, but the quickest short cut to making horse racing a bigger and much more attractive business partner and business proposition than it is- and is perceived to be- is by actually marketing the sport to other businesses and, to use a racing parlance, taking some smart punts on winning over brands like Nike or Apple or Samsung, each with their own huge databases, marketing dollars and, in Nike’s case, its own roster of celebrities with massive fan appeal.
One hackneyed advertising slogan used by many different companies to showcase the brands it owns and/or distributes is that old warhorse, “The company we keep.” Methuselah and Sons must have written that. For racing to move into new customer territory, it, too, must have a portfolio of brands and partners that show “the company it keeps”. Like people, shallow as it might seem, one is judged the same way. As Sinatra sang, That’s Life. Nike, Reebok and Adidas might be all about football and basketball and sneakers, but let’s think about the slogan, “Just Do It” with its Swoosh logo. Has anyone in horse racing even considered approaching Nike with an integrated marketing campaign built around this inspirational theme, or has this been dismissed with a Yoda-like Impossible Is Everything?
For a sport that often bursts into song that “winners are grinners”, those supposedly steering The Good Ship Lollipop of Racing into uncharted waters often suffer from a defeatist attitude. Yes, marketing is a mere blip when it comes to the importance of ensuring racing clubs meet their wagering KPIs. But, surely, wagering and market share in the sports and gaming industry, and awareness gained through marketing and “success through association” are all the dots that join, all the ties that bind, and everything that add to the holistic whole? There’s “marketing” as in one-off promotions with no legs or long term strategic thinking, and then there’s that formidable combination of marketing and advertising that create highly effective communication campaigns targeted to all the relevant customer segments that racing says it needs and wants. How is the sport achieving this objective? The word often used is “spin”, and the more this word is used, the more horse racing remains tied to the old hitching pole of cheaters, losers and two-bit gamblers, looking as if it’s trying to be what it’s not, being disingenuous, and talking to that rapidly dwindling, ageing, hardcore Prisoner Of Zenda market.
We all have to die, but, jeez, horse racing doesn’t have to die with us. At least give it a chance to go down fighting by singing Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and looking beyond the obvious, or else looking at the obvious and giving it a makeover. Off the top of my head, Francesca Cumani, Frankie Dettori, Golden Horn, Treve, Joao Moreira, James McDonald, Zac Purton and Gai Waterhouse are some of the most well-known names in horse racing. And here lies the problem and opportunity. These are horse racing celebrities- but these are also horse racing celebrities with the marketability to become known to many of those brands that don’t even look at racing as, not only a partner, but as an advertising medium through the hardware it owns- the racecourses, the venues, the off-course betting centres and the audience the sport attracts- and could attract more by working with partners owning the software.
Are any of these or all of these packaged together and marketed as an advertising medium that can be used to reach certain customer segments with pinpoint accuracy? Maybe. Where can it be seen? An internal memo? Maybe. Forget the usual “naming rights” mantra and some outdoor posters for existing sponsors, most of which are the equivalent of advertising Muzak. Much of this has to do with brand managers who, sadly, are happy with Okay. Settling for just Okay is a horrible “trend” for both sides. It engages no one. It’s just corporate waffle. It’s being blinded by the bland like a deuce in the night.
Horse racing needs to understand that in its infrastructure, its venues, it has something of value to offer potential partners. At the same time, it also needs to accept that large global brands who could help make the sport consumer friendly aren’t going to come to any table to negotiate with what they see as a lesser mortal who is ill-prepared and governed by an enormous sense of entitlement.
And speaking of The Donald, who may be a lot of things, good, bad, and ugly and who is also one of the world’s wealthiest businessmen, imagine if the task of these wannabe members of The Apprentice was to turn a racing club in the US into something bigger than it is. Whether the show is good or bad, the coverage and the press it would receive would widen the audience for horse racing in ways that are sadly lacking today.
Internal approval processes by committee must make way for external acceptances by consumers. It’s those racing executives who can see where marketing is going wrong and where and how this should stop continuing to be “trending”- even if this means changing that Organisation chart that hangs there looking like an ancient dartboard that’s missed and keeps missing the bulls eye at almost every turn. Hitting the bullseye now — when the crystal ball looking at racing’s future seems ominously clear even on an overcast day — means removing the marketing puzzle outside of the racing business. What’s needed is an independent creative and marketing management team with a strong Rolodex. Ideally, there should be something along the lines of Simon Fuller’s XIX Management and where this team this allowed to perform without tripping over bureaucratic red tape while bombs go off on the bridge over the River Kwai.
Like Lewis Hamilton or a Sharapova or, fill in the blanks, horse racing has some very marketable personalities with absorbing back stories that have appeal from the positivity of Nike’s Just Do It to Samsung’s What’s Next. Francesca Cumani is perfection personified as the host of CNN’s Winning Post- but she can also so easily be a style icon. And with the right upmarket brand behind her, Ms Cumani can attract new fans to racing by her not being only about horse racing. Chanel or Cartier and Francesca Cumani? Why not? Like The Birken, the Francesca? Why not? Same with Gai Waterhouse- the First Lady of Australian Racing, who has, well, a fabulous story to tell to those outside of horse racing. Same with Joao Moreira and his incredible back story of the poor kid from São Paulo who has beat the odds to become the Magic Man of horse racing. If his story isn’t a Rise story or about Just Doing It, what is?
Yes, there are the “feel good” stories of horse racing with its equine heroes, but these are usually blasts from the past, and rarely “engage” those outside of the sport. “Seabiscuit” was no “Mamma Mia”. This “engagement” that’s bandied about so easily along with pinning all marketing hopes on this thing called “social media” can begin, and maybe, should begin with the personalities that already happen to be in racing- and with the commercial appeal to attract many not yet in the sport, but more than happy to come in from the cold, see what’s in it for them, and meet like-minded people along the way with whom they just might be able to change the thinking of hard-core racing executives that have taken the sport down the same old path for way too long. It might just wake them up to take some gambles, embrace change while changing their mindset. Remember The Office. Watch this space for The Racing Club.