(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
By Jenny Bridle & Hans Ebert
Does horse racing really want talented, creative, experienced marketing professionals from the outside looking in and with objectivity to help the sport find that magic elixir that will guarantee its future? Or, are racing’s powers-that-be so set in their ways, so blinkered, that they will just be as happy as Larry, Moe and Curly Joe and carry on down their own Yellow Brick Road going La la la without knowing what their end game is, and even if they do, how to get there?
A constant refrain from racing’s choir of talking heads is that the sport needs to attract more new and younger customers (a.k.a. horseplayers or fans). The words “engage” and “engagement” echo through the empty halls of racetrack executive suites around the world. Yet, from the evidence, it seems those sitting inside these ivory towers (and padded cells) must think these words mean one’s phone line is busy or there’s a need to put a ring on it or something or another. Sorry, Beyoncé, and all you Single Ladies. How can any racing club “engage” with their existing fans and attract new customers if they never really take part in getting to know their very own club- or make the time to understand who and what and why appeals to this demographic outside of the racing world before making judgement calls based on perceived notions, or worse, subjectivity? Today’s tech-savvy consumer can smell phoniness in FourFive Seconds to wildin.
Actual engagement and what is meant by engagement in the modern sense, as used in that ubiquitous and central form of marketing communication today- social media — requires two things: some level of understanding of “user experience” and the ability to put oneself in the place of another, hopefully one’s customer(s), in order to see what the product and the marketing should look like; and, the ability to be social, to, you know, talk to people you don’t know, to listen (and that doesn’t just mean waiting impatiently for your chance to speak), to make “newbies” of any status or circumstance feel welcome. And, really, to just show you care about people- that you care about your customers and whether they are having a great experience enjoying themselves.
How many racing executives actually do this? How many people involved in racing as a whole are like this- have genuine pride of place, who, wherever they go, are passionate brand ambassadors of their club(s)? Are truly welcoming of new ideas and new ways of showcasing the sport and growing the customer/fan base?
If marketing and engagement go hand in hand, then the current wisdom of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks is beyond wrongheaded. Strangely, this practice continues despite any evidence that it actually works. Witness one current example: America’s Best Racing.
Urging site visitors to “Live it, Love it, Play it, Share it,” America’s Best Racing (ABR) describes itself as “a multimedia fan development and awareness-building platform, created and funded by The Jockey Club, designed to increase the profile and visibility of North America’s best Thoroughbred racing events, with a primary focus on the sport’s lifestyle and competition.”
Designed by Lightmaker, who also built the official sites for Disney, EA Sports, Sony Play Station, Manchester United and Chelsea Football Club, the site is built with dozens of technologies for monitoring traffic, advertising beacons, etc and includes daily posting of new content relating to the top horses, jockeys, and trainers as well as how-to-bet information, news and other reports, style and entertainment guides, and dozens of videos. The site is promoted by the “ABR Ambassadors”- six under 30 social media “influencers” who drive around in a million dollar recreational vehicle dubbed the ABRV visiting tracks and possible hangouts for young potential horse racing fans to encourage participation in the sport.
ABR is the horse racing marketing strategy borne out of the McKinsey Report commissioned by the Jockey Club and presented at the annual Round Table of 2011. In their consultation, McKinsey analysed 600,000 races over 11 years; conducted hundreds of interviews with “industry stakeholders,” regulators, “opinion leaders”; and, surveyed 2,720 Thoroughbred owners, current and potential fans. Amongst the conclusions drawn:
– Thoroughbred racing struggles against a strong negative public perception
– Less than 50% of current fans would recommend the sport to their friends
– Animal welfare is a growing concern in the United States — 78% of those surveyed said they would stop betting altogether if they found out the horses were not treated well
– Field sizes are falling
– There is too much, low quality racing and the scheduling is uncoordinated
– Racing is too complicated for new fans
– Racetracks are not nice places to visit – they are dirty, foodless and there is no TV coverage
– 4% of current fans leave the sport every year
And, to solve all of the above, produced are baffling pieces of communications like these:
For anyone who loves the sport of horse racing, the question – and it is not a personal one directed at one or more specific people who, no doubt, genuinely believe that what they are doing is having a solid, positive “marketing” impact — must be, “Why is this?” How come, if there is money available for marketing (and clearly there is in the case of the US Jockey Club, which must have spent significant sums paying McKinsey and then developing the website and other channels), horse racing continues, with few bright light exceptions, to talk to itself and produce mediocre marketing and advertising, and thus, continues to contract over time because new customers are not being drawn into the sport?
Some will say that, in countries such as the United States, this lack of new fans and attrition regarding old customers is due to several factors such as a lack of integrity, animal welfare concerns, and high take outs. And, on the surface, these answers are correct. However, delve deeper and what you come up against is an inexplicable intransigence toward professional marketing and advertising assistance, in particular, and the creative process, in general.
Clubs want big name advertising agencies’ help, but when they actually manage to persuade them or talent from creatively-driven industries to take an interest in their business, it results in so much time-wasting, the age old game art of passing the buck and accepting Zero Responsibility, especially in dealing with those given “marketing” titles when they are actually order takers, these outsiders with their own perceived ideas of what this thing called “horse racing” is about, take their ball and go home. It’s not worth the hassle, and the work needed suddenly looks like being the equivalent of Muzak.
It’s not worth all of the above plus not worth working to briefs lacking in cohesive strategies, and putting up with stifling approval processes brought about by corporate structures led by those with little or no understanding of the creative process. What’s puzzling and discouraging about racing is that the sport, and those in charge, seem unable, or are unwilling to learn; they do not understand strategic creative thinking, time management and bona fide marketing- and they don’t want to.
What seems more important to many is the exercise of control and, what is that? The defense of the insecure. And, what’s weird is racing has very little to be insecure about. The sport has a lot going for it including hundreds of years of history and the most majestic animals on the planet. Celebrities, rags-to-riches, and human interest stories abound. There’s incredible live action, some superb locations and positively amazing venues around the world. It is at once the Sport of Kings and the Sport of Nobodies, an aspirational form of sport, lifestyle and entertainment that requires what many of these pastimes lack today: a combination of competition, elegance, risk, and hope. The marketable riches of racing are there to be mined and turned into gems.
If only those in charge could see and support it by allowing those who understand marketing and creativity to get on with what they do best instead of going where they’re not supposed to go, and where the only thing “created” is confusion, mediocrity and a Me, Too product created by committee- and for that committee. What about the customer and “customer engagement”? It’s been left on the drawing board.