At the Kentucky Derby, Brands Focus on Being Part of the Experience, Not Just Logos

Corona, Woodford Reserve, Ram and more are going big

Woodford Reserve created an attention-grabbing '$1,000 mint julep' as a fundraiser for Jennifer Lawrence's art foundation.
Woodford Reserve

On Kentucky Derby day, home of “the fastest two minutes in sports,” there’s plenty of downtime at the Churchill Downs venue between thoroughbred races, and sponsors like Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Ram and Woodford Reserve plan to pack in more brand activity than the event’s seen in its previous 143 years.

New partner Corona will take advantage of Derby falling on May 5 this year, mashing up the traditional Southern holiday with Cinco de Mayo. Its “Cinco de Derby” will include a faux winner’s circle—one of a growing number of selfie stations at the venue. Coke will snap and share photos of race-goers against the picturesque Twin Spires landmark, and Zyrtek will offer makeovers to anyone suffering from “allergy eyes.”

Ram Trucks is parking its accessory-heavy limited edition Kentucky Derby vehicles in high-traffic areas of the Louisville track, filling their beds with thousands of roses for colorful photo ops.

Brown Forman’s Woodford Reserve, a longtime partner, has stepped up to presenting sponsor and brought in sibling brands Old Forrester and Finlandia for race-themed cocktails, including Woodford’s “$1,000 mint julep” that benefits the art foundation created by actress and Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence. (There’s also a $2,500 version, and they’re both bottomless, if you can handle a refill).

Even more than past years, Churchill Downs executives have spread out their partnerships to reach the different demo segments that flock to the event. Derby draws an average of 160,000 people, many of them for as long as 12 hours.

The upscale Sentient Jet, for instance, will have its employees making chocolate truffles in the VIP areas (mostly celebrities and blue bloods, no hoi polloi), while Sam Adams sibling Angry Orchard cider will try to nab trendy young hipsters and Vineland Vineyards will cater to the oenophiles. There are populist brands like La Croix and UPS and stylish high-enders such as Longines.

"This is really a social gathering between races, and the brands are trying to bring something of value, beyond ad messages.”
Kristin Warfield, vp of partnerships, Churchill Downs

Execs segmented the beer category for the first time, making way for multiple brands including Corona, which will have “a giant footprint” with a fiesta theme in the infield, said Kristin Warfield, vp, partnerships at Churchill Downs. There was talk of creating a massive sandy beach, but logistics (and unpredictable weather) nixed the idea.

The strategy overall, Warfield said, was to amp up the consumer experience for the 144th Run for the Roses.

“We wanted more content and more interactive opportunities because this is really a social gathering between races,” she said. “And the brands are trying to bring something of value, beyond ad messages.”

In upcoming years the focus will broaden further, Warfield said, as more European and international competitors (and their potential fans) enter the race. And the hoopla around Kentucky Derby has spread from a single day to about a week’s worth of activities, giving marketers more chances to find a spot trackside.