Updated: Apr 24
Someone I know who stumbles in and out of horse racing according to her wants and needs and challenges me about many things in life in the most inspiring of ways mentioned the name Francesca Cumani over the weekend.
She talked about the horse racing programme Francesca hosted on CNN around a decade ago, and how this combination of beauty and brains and the right “medium for the message” somehow elevated the status of horse racing to a level beyond being seen only as a product associated with gambling and “battlers”.
Francesca Cumani was a game changer in that she was one of the first real “influencers” in horse racing- stylish, extremely knowledgeable, attractive and personable. Plus, as some of us noticed the night some years back when she dropped by the club Adrenaline at Happy Valley racecourse, she had great taste in shoes.
Francesca Cumani also had the right “pedigree”, coming from one of the most respected racing families in Europe.
Talking about Francesca and those early days of social media when Twitter was at a very different place in time was a stark reminder of how, in less than ten years, certain standards in horse racing to do with its image have been allowed to drop to a level, where it’s difficult to know these days (A) to who the pastime is being marketed and (B) what is its product personality and (C) where exactly it fits in people’s lives.
At least in Hong Kong, “aspiration” was a keyword in the primary marketing objective of every upmarket cognac brand- and which was linked to horse racing.
In each of their television advertising campaigns, brands like Hennessy, Courvoisier, and Martell showed that winners in life and horse racing celebrated these successes with friends by enjoying the most expensive cognacs in upmarket clubs and Vegas type showgirls for entertainment.
It was all very aspiration-driven advertising, and horse racing got a free ride through association in million dollar advertising campaigns created and produced by professional global ad agencies.
At the time, Universal Music, where I was Executive Director for the Asia region plus Japan, was owned by Seagrams.
Under Seagrams were the Martell and Chivas Regal brands.
Over the weekend, I began revisiting some of the music marketing we did for both brands.
With Martell being the worldwide sponsor for The Grand National, we created commemorative CDs for the race and arranged pretty lavish dinner parties for the racing media where international celebrities were invited.
Photos from these parties for artists like Norah Jones, below, made the social pages, and you know what they say about what one picture is worth.
In their advertising, main competitor Hennessy celebrated being a “big spender” in television commercials.
By purchasing the sync Rights to “Hey, Big Spender”, shown in their advertising were a group of friends- all male- celebrating a winning day at the races in an escort club with good looking European females for company.
None of this was seen as tacky or being pretentious.
Au contraire, possums.
Those shown in their advertising were those who today would be described as “influencers” and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).
Back then, they were seen as successful young business leaders- and which they were.
These days, the major sponsors of Hong Kong racing are Longines, BMW, and Sasa, the very successful cosmetics brand owned by Simon and Eleanor Kwok, prominent horse owners who own all those Beauty horses, and insurance company FWD.
What is the Return On Investment for these sponsors?
Apart from “naming rights”, one supposes that through on course and off course marketing, these brands and businesses reach their right target audience and receive that old advertising chestnut known as “awareness”.
How are these marketing efforts sustained when there’s a lull in activities?
This remains a grey area though one can always mention “reminder” advertising even if in the usual crowded online spaces.
How effective is any of this?
Does anyone really know?
Even Elon Musk and Zuckerberg?
Here lies the problem- and not only for horse racing.
There’s a disconnect in much of what’s passed off these days as “marketing”.
One size doesn’t fit all while there’s always the feeling that too many throw everything against the wall and sees what idea might stick.
This has been seen way too often in the work produced in recent years.
Maybe too many not really understanding the difference between advertising, marketing and promotions?
Maybe it’s not helped by clunky organisation charts that need reworking?
Maybe there might be a smarter way to use talent hired- the right talent for the right positions?
Sponsorship marketing, music marketing, sports marketing, Public Service Announcements, they are all very different- but somehow similar.
If they have one thing in common, it’s that the most effective of these adhere to a key rule in advertising: Appeal To Heart And Head.
How many remember this before quickly “getting something out there”?
I come back to Francesca Cumani- she will be in Hong Kong for Champions Day- the use of CNN and the ways in which horse racing in Hong Kong so successfully sold “aspiration” as part of the core value of looking at the meaning of winning- and giving the game a product personality.
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and be reminded of what once worked, and could work again in a different context relevant to the times with some tweaking and understanding the mood and rhythm of the city- and selling aspirational values.
It helps to see how much things have changed and all the many new things that could and should be done, but how and where many are held back because of perhaps being unable to look past the obvious and break the pattern.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club, for instance, with its Charities Trust has a unique product.
There’s so much one can do with this other than sponsored advertorials and “happy snaps” of smiling racing executives in hard hats and shovels and posing for cheesy corporate photos.
On Sunday, we met up for dinner with some former colleagues in the music and advertising industries.
They knew something about the basics of horse racing and a couple had tried to work with the HKJC before giving up.
The reason for throwing in the towel came down to too many cooks on the client side and with internal goalposts being constantly moved by underlings attempting to second guess the wishes of the big poohbah.
For myself, taking up the offer over a decade ago to transform an empty beer garden and something called “Sassy Wednesday” was because this was a creative challenge and something good for the portfolio and the reel.
What became Happy Wednesday and ideas like the aspiration driven Champagne Sundays at Shatin that never happened was for a very different Hong Kong.
What I see now in a confused city and an equally confused racing product that doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be.
Is it Canto Pop racing or international racing? Or both with some sushi and sashimi thrown in?
Trying to be all things to all people and with everyone and their running dogs having “ideas”, make things look as goofy and as empty as the city’s misfired “Hello Hong Kong” and “Happy Hong Kong” campaigns.
Hong Kong racing needs to get its mojo back and lead by example instead of resorting to appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Again, we return to the word known as “aspiration” and communications that appeal to heart and mind- in English, Cantonese and Mandarin- and break the pattern.
Communications that might give the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Charities Trust a product personality it’s never had before- and from where new things can grow.