Kentucky Derby is courting a younger audience through brand activations

Kentucky Derby hats are part of the traditions at Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs is a racetrack steeped in tradition – the home of the Kentucky Derby for 145 years and the first stop of what many three-year-old horse owners hope is the first win of a Triple Crown. Bettors put big money on their picks, but so do brands when it comes to the ‘greatest two minutes of sports’.

More than 150,000 fans attend the Kentucky Derby every year, and millions more watch the pre-race festivities, which include some of the most elaborate hats ever worn. So, the experience needs to be fun and engaging throughout the day for both longtime fans and a new generation.

Churchill Downs has been courting millennials for several years, and this year looks to be the biggest yet in its bid to pull a new wave of fans to both the racetrack and the televised horseracing event.

Sponsorships on race day range from having names and spaces in the infield of the track to advertising during the televised portion of the event. With a race that relies on its traditions, courting a new generation of fans might seem daunting, but Churchill Downs is doing its best to work with brands on activations and activities that give people a reason to attend and watch beyond just the race.

“There’s a free flow through some of these areas to make them more lounge-like and interactive. It really fits well with what I think millennials are looking for and how they like to experience events,” Kristin Warfield, vice-president of partnerships at Churchill Downs, told The Drum.

The fan experience for millennials focuses on the social experience of the event, and the event partners are encouraged to court that demographic in a near-festival style.

“Our gates open at 8am and the Kentucky Derby doesn’t happen until about 7pm," said Warfield. "In that time period, we have about 30 minutes of actual racing, and the rest of the time is filled with other content. We need to make that content compelling so that the social experience of the entire day lives up to the hype of the memory that people are creating when they’re living out their bucket list dream of coming to the Derby."

Warfield points guests to the website, where people can get answers to their questions about where they should sit and what experiences they want to have at the event.

“We like to say we have a party for everyone," she said. "So, it’s just finding the right physical place at the facility for the type of party that you want. It’s really asking questions and listening and understanding. When you are dreaming of coming to the Kentucky Derby, what’s in that dream for you? Is it hobnobbing with the elite of the elite, or is it hanging out on the infield, rolling out a blanket and sitting on the ground? There’s no right or wrong to that, it’s just two very different experiences."

The site even has an authenticated area where people who ordered months earlier can legally sell them if their plans change.

One thing the marketing team prides itself in is being open minded in what it creates with its partners. No two activations nor partnerships are exactly alike, and the three main focuses are on alcohol, fashion and entertainment partners. Some of the partners are first-year and some are longer term that are revising their activations.

Party on the infield

The infield grass is where many of the activations happen, especially for the millennial crowd, and the brands involved hope to keep people entertained when the horses aren’t running. Some key infield sponsors this year include: Old Forester, Budweiser, White Claw, Blue Moon, RAM, Angry Orchard, Corona, MGM and Vineyard Vines.

The Woodford brand of bourbon is collaborating with MGM and building a Vegas-style lounge in the infield. In turn, the brands are teaming for a Kentucky Derby party in the hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

Preppy clothing company Vineyard Vines is a long-standing sponsor and their footprint on the infield is one of the biggest and most anticipated.

“Their icon is a whale, so they have an activation called ‘Whalestock’, which is a play on Woodstock…that Coachella festival-type feel, with a live band and live music, and they give out pink foam whale hats that have become a staple of the infield. They are inherently just a millennial brand…the repeating patrons know that it’s there year after year,” said Warfield.

Second-year partner MassMutual is focused on social media and Instagrammable moments, and the brand is hosting a lounge-type experience that celebrates the brand message of living mutual and togetherness with a wifi experience and a Boomerang camera for short videos. The brand has also placed the smallest activation - a series of approximately 20 miniatures that will be located around key areas at The Derby including the stadium, the infield, roof beams and other places.

What Warfield calls the “malt beverage partners,” such as Corona and Budweiser, will have other activations, like a beach house with a photo wall for Corona and other Instagrammable beer moments that include party games, tailgate games and more.

“Combine all of that together and there’s plenty of activities. If you roam around through all of these spaces in the 12 hours you’re spending in the infield, you’ve got a very compelling and enjoyable day,” she said.

In a sweepstakes activation, Quicken Loans and Rocket Mortgage is bringing 20 winners to the Kentucky Derby and each one is getting assigned one of the 20 horses. Whichever one of the horses wins, that person will get a $250,00 mortgage payoff.

‘Pristine green’ traditions

Warfield says the balance between staid traditions and new activations is a challenge the team faces daily.

“We evaluate every one of these brands’ presence decisions and brand activation decisions very carefully to make sure we’re not infringing too much, both on the traditions of what the Derby stands for as well as the physical appearance of the track. We don’t want to stray too much from our pristine green and white look. We realize that to remain relevant we have to evolve with the times.

"We need to appeal to the next generation of fans who consume content very differently. They need this to remain engaged both on site and off site. It’s critical that we find the balance that we’re comfortable with.”

Ultimately, it’s about the consumer experience, and Warfield thinks the balance between tradition and new is just right, and that shows in the number of returning partners.

“I love spending time with each of our partners and seeing them happy with how their activations are coming out. [It’s about] success and positivity for them, which is why we have such a strong retention rate and an increasing number of partners, because things continue to work and those stories get shared.”

No matter which horse wins the race, then, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby should come out winners with their partners.

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