By Hans Ebert
It’s been a somewhat late Eureka moment, but, as the saying goes, better late than never, and the efforts by racing clubs and others to market the racing product in all its many manifestations to Australia’s burgeoning and powerful and wealthy Chinese- and Asian- communities gathers momentum. There was the War of the Roses, and this is more of a battle for the dim sum, and who ends up with the char siu bau.
Though there have been attempts to get this off the ground and reach its right demographic by the Kaylin Group and, more recently, the Moonee Valley Racing Club in partnership with the Australian Chinese Racing Club whose Teresa Poon is no fool in the area of marketing, promotions and racing knowledge, these were just trial runs.
Even before winning the battle, the key is getting the basic strategy in place- a basic strategy that has nothing to do with lion dances, the banging of gongs, opening up novelty noodle shops, flying in ubiquitous actor and sometime-horse owner Aaron Kwok, Mandarin race callers when horses don’t have Chinese names, Jenny Hawkins in a cheongsam, and dragging in a rickshaw somewhere along the way as part of some misguided attempt at “promotion”. Perhaps some of these can come later though we shudder at the thought. Giving one “face” is all-important. These “Chinese” or “Asian” race days cannot come across as token gestures that don’t fit with everything else already in place. If this happens, it becomes a turn-off for everyone and no one wins. Thanks to technology and the on-line world, tokenistic and patronizing marketing gestures are exposed for what they are. Ultimately they “euthanize” real and refreshing opportunities for racing to demonstrate and adopt positions which will take the sport somewhere in this cluttered and Darwinian environment of change.
There’s that very thin line between being clever marketers and patronising that cannot be crossed. The end game and the end results are far too important to create a dog’s breakfast made up of an embarrassing chop suey that’s thrown against the wall to see what sticks.
“Marketing to the Chinese”, and “Chinese Race Day” already has a hollow ring to them. Like the old “Made In China” label, they sound second class, condescending and decidedly old-fashioned.
Even in Hong Kong, tapping that local market takes on a raft of different strategies. The Happy Wednesday brand, for example, has always been far more international and aspirational, while, from time to time, working with local tastemakers G.O.D, especially for the Chinese New Year promotion. G.O.D takes “old Hong Kong” kitsch, and makes it hip again for the international consumer and the younger and more Westernised Chinese market.
These horses for courses strategies are there to see in the Beer Garden, and at Adrenaline, the more upmarket club for a slightly older customer demographic who are not totally new to the sport.
“Aspirational” has been a key word in Hong Kong advertising and marketing for decades- and should never be lost in translation. Whether Marlboro, Hennessy, Omega’s Cellini Collection, Lane Crawford- or horse racing- selling aspiration has been a vital part of every strategy. Go too local, and no one wants it. It’s not, well, you know the word by now.
Owning a horse, being part of an ownership syndicate, racing at Adrenaline, being in a private box during Sa Sa, QE11 Cup Day, or HK International race day is aspirational.
What might seem pretentious to some is aspirational to others. And what the ethnic minorities in Australia, especially the Chinese- and no matter how wealthy- must be sold on is the aspirational value of becoming part of horse racing, and where this might lead.
With Hong Kong racing seen to be a closed shop, and playground for the rich, richer and richest, and the nouveau riche in Mainland China, and unlike the meaningless bragging rights of owning second-rate horses in tinpot Macau, or Singapore or Malaysia, becoming part of racing in the land down under is far more open- and cost-effective.
Forget all the big-name Chinese players in the sport in the country today whose purchases of various “components” of the horse racing product often borders on the brash and vulgar, and raises questions and alarm bells in the laundromat. These big spenders march to the beat of their own drum and have their own reasons and versions of The Long March. Leave them to their own means.
Right now, racing in Australia is a very attractive entry point for, especially, the Chinese business sector looking for a fun leisure sport with an attractive element of risk and something to add to their investment portfolio. There are no barriers, only opportunities, and it could be seen as a welcome alternative to trying to beat the house at somewhere like Crown.
There’s a long-term future- and one wonders how many racing clubs really understand that this means more than a few ‘live’ simulcasts with Hong Kong, which, by the way, need a complete overhaul if these are ever going to be more than a Hardcore Gamblers Paradise, where the gremlins are allowed in to play without the right toys in the way of information. Like commingling, simulcasts remain a flawed business model. Then again, the same can be said about horse racing. And let’s never forget that Australian racing is at the crossroads, caught up in a do or die struggle for survival. It needs all the resuscitation that it can get.
Like novelty hit records that are here today and gone tomorrow, and, perhaps, resurface every decade, the marketing of horse racing to Australia’s Asian community cannot be a one-off sprint. It must have legs. It also has to do with being “Chinese” enough to have global appeal. Let’s not lose the current and loyal local market while trying to expand that customer base. This would be the tail wagging the running dog.
Without writing out a free strategy statement, just think of the artists, the designers- fashion designers like Helen Lee, Huishan Ziang, Christopher Bo, and all the Western designers creating Haute Chinoise that’s come a long way from the birth of the Shanghai Tang brand.
Think of the film makers like Tarantino and Scorsese, and musicians like Bowie and Gorillaz who have been long-time admirers of Chinese culture which they incorporated into their art.
There’s remains the worldwide appeal of the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee to, especially the hip hop community, the entrepreneurs from the West, who have looked to the East, keep looking to the East and, especially, Chinese culture for inspiration that leads to creativity. And in this regard, Racing has shown no respect for creativity in anything that it has done. It’s only alibi is that it does not understand creativity. And that is it’s biggest challenge.
Think along these lines, and the Big Picture will become clear with the much bigger picture being when horse racing will have an interactive online lifestyle channel that will bring a currently splintered industry together while offering racing fans around the world with a real Voice. The future is out there. And this future will be racing’s first “Indie label”. As in the music industry, it had to happen. And it will happen sooner rather than later.