Modern Marketing Brand Strategy

Brands race to offer luxurious experiences at the 2022 Kentucky Derby

By Max Simpson | Freelancer

May 5, 2022 | 7 min read

Each year in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby brings together unique cultures, experiences, food and entertainment — making it a must-attend experience for swaths of consumers and many major brands. This year's event will feature new brand activations of all kinds, from gold-clad mint juleps retailing for $2,500 a pop to an elaborate display of 7,000 red roses to showcase BMW's all-electric i7.

“Everyone wants to attend the Kentucky Derby once in their life,” says Casey Ramage, vice-president of marketing and partnerships for Churchill Downs Racetrack. “We are a sophisticated, indulgent celebration.”

Derby viewer space

At the Kentucky Derby, brands like Red Bull, BMW and Woodford Reserve put on flashy activations

Throughout Derby Week, the racetrack sees an influx of different personalities all mingling together and taking in the festivities. Over 300,000 fans are expected on-site throughout the week with over 150,000 to be on-site during what's often referred to as 'the greatest two minutes in sports.' Derby-goers come from all walks of life, ranging from college graduates celebrating in the infield to marquee celebrities dressed to the nines. The event combines fans' passion for the sport with entertainment, food, and drinks in a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.

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“The Derby serves as a great melting pot for everyone,” says Ramage. “You have hours to spend with your friends and make new ones in the process. For us, it’s great to hear the stories afterwards whether it’s people getting engaged or getting jobs from the connections they interact with. It’s an honor to host this party.”

This week, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby are back to full capacity for the first time in two years. Coming out of a global pandemic, the Kentucky Derby is positioning itself once again as a grand event. It’s a party atmosphere mixed with the cultural legacy the event conjures up. This year’s Derby has been in preparation since last year’s event. With everything in full swing, it has perpetuated innovative growth from a partnership standpoint.

With gates opening at 10:00 am and the Derby Race commencing close to 7:00 pm, it allows plenty of time for attendees to mix it up with the different activations on hand. Partners are placing a premium on hospitality with elements incorporated throughout the event and within viewing parties around the world.

Presenting partner Woodford Reserve is going all-in on the legacy surrounding the Derby. The bourbon brand created 130 silver-plated cups and 18 gold cups in honor of the Derby’s 148th anniversary. Each cup has been designed to house the signature mint juleps for which the Derby is famous. The recipe draws upon the French connection of the Derby’s home, as Louisville, Kentucky is named after King Louis XVI. Priced at $2,500 for gold cups and $1,000 for silver, all proceeds will be donated to Old Friends Farm, a horse farm where thoroughbreds can retire peacefully.

Woodford Reserve bottle next to gold Kentucky Derby mint julep cup

The brand will also host existing activations through its Woodford Reserve Bar. At 95 feet, it holds the distinction as the longest bar in the commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s an exercise in brand affinity as Woodford Reserve’s goal is to get their customized bottles within each of the estimated 3 million Kentucky Derby parties around the world.

“Our partners are raising the bar,” says Ramage. “It’s not trying to place a square peg in a round hole. Everything is authentic in what we do. Same with our partners and with our fans. Whether they are here at the Derby or attending a Derby party, they want the authentic, genuine experience.”

New partners are also in the mix. BMW, the Kentucky Derby’s new luxury auto partner, will be out in full force with its first public showcase of their all new electric BMW i7. Tying the theming of the i7, 7,000 red roses will be featured near the vehicle for a dashing look.

Luxury appliance company Monogram will bring the luxurious food element into focus. They’ve tapped celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson to prepare a globally-inspired culinary experience on-site at the Derby as part of NBC Sports’ Derby Day coverage on NBC and Peacock.

Red Bull brings a newfound energy to the spectacle. Congregating in the infield section of the racetrack, the energy drink giant will serve as home to the Red Bull DJ Stage. This weekend, music will be bumping amid their tasting tents.

Apparel brand Homage provides a casual look for attendees. Through streetwear inspired clothing, the look and feel borrows from the owner’s experience of growing up around the race track.

Taking in the family atmosphere that the Derby creates, official Kentucky Derby partners are known to make introductions to each other and grow together throughout the week. Jackson Family Wines, which will host a Derby party on Saturday, has invited fellow partners Ford and TwinSpires to join in on their activations.

“Our core value at Churchill Downs is hospitality,” says Ramage. “We live to make people happy and our partners happy. We have a 147 year-old brand. We consistently harken back to how we look at our partners and the decisionmaking in how we work with them.”

The Churchill Downs team has taken a collaborative approach in this year’s event. It's also setting its eyes on the future. The Kentucky Derby’s 150th anniversary is just around the corner, in 2024. In what will serve as a unique celebration and experience, a $185-200m project to reinvigorate the Paddock area. It will continue to build upon the event’s historic nature as the longest continuously held sporting event in the US.

“My favorite part is seeing the joy on everyone’s faces,” says Ramage. “To be able to host this big party is something to take a lot of pride in.”

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