The Kentucky Derby Rode Social Media to Gen Z Success

For an event that is 150 years old, the Kentucky Derby has made a lot of young fans in recent years.

Beyond the Derby’s layers of tradition that include bourbon-soaked mint juleps, big hats, bugling and blankets of roses, there is a growing audience that is seeing and interacting with sports marketing far differently than generations before. They’re capturing the moment in front of flower-laden Instagram walls, comparing infield looks at designers’ booths and boutiques and treating the event’s guest rappers and podcasters as spectacles on par with the race itself.

They are even enjoying it with predetermined pauses between signature cocktails—or with spirits brands’ nonalcoholic offerings.

“We’re about to welcome 365,000 guests from all over the world and have 20 million people tune in from 170 territories, so we take that very seriously,” said Casey Ramage, Churchill Downs Racetrack vice president of marketing and partnership. “Whether it’s in the grandstands, premium, luxury, infield … if it’s your very first time here and you’ve just graduated from college or you’re about to go back home, you’re celebrating that moment, and everyone’s Derby celebration is just as important as the next person’s.”

In 2022, rapper Jack Harlow approached Churchill Downs three weeks before the Kentucky Derby and asked to film a video for his collaboration with Drake, “Churchill Downs,” on Derby day. He was named Grand Marshal of the event, brought both Drake and influencer Druski with him, filmed the video during the race and was carried across the track to avoid dirtying his shoes.

According to Ramage, the Derby’s TikTok following increased 700% after Harlow’s appearance, inspiring the Derby to focus on its TikTok and Instagram presence each year since. It also helped it focus on its ties to fashion, inviting more designers to the race and creating the Derby’s first style guide with journalist Zanna Roberts Rassi and partners including Vineyard Vines, Longines, Radley London and Brackish.

Harlow’s presence also acknowledged a need for distractions beyond the race and its pageantry. This year, the Derby invited The Unwell Network and its founder and Call Her Daddy host, Alex Cooper, to take the infield with the host of Unwell’s Hot Mess podcast, Alix Earle, for an event on the morning of the race itself. The Derby’s traditions aren’t going anywhere, but the event’s stewards are adding new elements to ensure that it keeps adding years to that century-and-a-half of history.

“That is how we stay relevant,” Ramage said. “Those are the types of things that we’re going to have to continue to do to make sure that we’re a part of the cultural conversation.”

Finding balance in bourbon

At this stage of its existence, Ramage views the Kentucky Derby as a sporting event with the history and magnitude of Wimbledon or The Masters, but with the entertainment and experiential offerings of South by Southwest or Coachella. Blending the two requires some deft brand diplomacy.

For example, spirits company Brown-Forman is a staple at Churchill Downs, with its Woodford Reserve brand serving as the Kentucky Derby’s presenting sponsor since 2018. On race weekend, Brown-Forman’s Old Forester goes into each Mint Julep, its Woodford Reserve into each Spire and Herradura Tequila into the Horseshoe Margarita, while Finlandia Vodka forms the backbone of the Oaks Lily. That’s fine—when you aren’t selling to a generation actively trying to temper its alcohol consumption.

From observing Dry January and Sober October to encouraging Coachella and Stagecoach to offer more nonalcoholic options, Generation Z has made clear that it is cutting back. According to NCSolutions, 53% of Gen Z says it wants to curb booze consumption, compared to 40% in 2023. In the past six months, 54% of legal drinking-age Gen Zers have abstained from alcohol.

As a result, organic drink maker Tractor Beverage will debut its mocktails at Churchill Downs’ First Turn Club this year, while longtime sponsor White Claw is bringing cans of its nonalcoholic beverages—as well as a windbreaker collaboration with Kentucky Derby streetwear partner Homme + Femme. Ramage said Churchill Downs is also working on a “pause” campaign with Brown-Forman to remind attendees that it’s a long day of short races and to pace themselves accordingly.

“It is changing, and so we’ve also listened,” Ramage said. “We are known for bourbon in this state, but there’s a right way to do it, and it’s important for us that our customers have a responsible time while they’re here.”

New entries in the race

A younger audience is creating new brand demand far beyond Churchill Downs’ bars.

Yes, the $200 million renovation of the facility’s paddock included the construction of the Woodford Reserve Paddock Club and Sports Illustrated’s Club SI bar spaces. But the new paddock plaza’s ring of pop-up boutiques adds Aviator Nation to Derby mainstays, including Roots & Jones, Radley London and Fanatics. 

The view from Churchill Downs’ $200 million renovated paddock.Churchill Downs

Along with brands like Ford and Frito-Lay’s PopCorners—which also have a presence in the refurbished paddock—the boutiques vie for the attention of fans in the area’s 3,000 new premium seats and standing room with space for another 2,600. They are also catching the eye of international influencers invited to Churchill Downs from Japan, the U.K., Ireland, the Middle East and other horse-racing hotspots as the facility looks to globalize the event.

Much as Churchill Downs fills its infield with a big-screen television, 360-degree photo booths, a Q Mixers cocktail club and a Boot Barn cowboy hat branding stand to get race and podcast fans interacting with brands, it puts boutiques, clubs and a PopCorners speakeasy in front of an Instagram-ready backdrop of its twin spires to meet both young fans and eager brands where they’re at.

“We have the fortune of having an event and having a brand that is a cross-section of culture, entertainment, fashion and sports,” Ramage said. “So when we approach partnerships, we are able to work with each individual partner and find out [their] objectives, if their brand] values align with ours and—because we have such a diverse segment of fans—how can we then find the right spot for you.”

Originally Appeared Here

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About the Author: Rayne Chancer