Why the Kentucky Derby Is a Winning Play for Brands Hoping to Reach a Wide Range of Fans

The annual race has a demographically diverse audience

Hundreds of brands are working with the Derby this year.
Churchill Downs Racetrack

On Saturday, May 6, thousands of people at Churchill Downs and millions at home will don seersucker suits or wide-brimmed hats and sip mint juleps while watching what’s been called “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby.

For the brands sponsoring the Derby this year, it’s a chance to capture the attention of a wide, demographically diverse audience, from the younger attendees in the infield section to the high rollers and celebrities who pony up as much as $2,000 a ticket for clubhouse boxes.

“We have a party for everyone,” said Kristin Warfield, vp of sales and partnerships at Churchill Downs. “It’s a major social event, and there’s a wide variety of experiences that reach all different demographics.”

About 170,000 people attend the Derby each year, and last year, Kentucky Derby Week, a series of social events leading up to the Derby, set an attendance record at 370,000.

Churchill Downs segments some of its brand partnerships by audience. For instance, luxury brands are more likely to target front-side ticket holders, 78 percent of whom are 35 and older, while others are more suited to infield attendees, 70 percent of whom are 18 to 34 years old. Average household incomes for front-side attendees also are higher than attendees in the infield.

“We know so much about our audience depending on the experience they choose to have, so we match brands with their specific demographic focus,” Warfield said.

“We have 170,000 attendees, and Sentient wants to talk to about 5,000 of them.”
Kristin Warfield, vp of sales and partnerships at Churchill Downs

Private jet company Sentient Jet has on-site activations that only appear in ticketed, private areas of Churchill Downs. This year, it’s sponsoring flights to and from the Derby and hosting a breakfast with celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

“We have 170,000 attendees, and Sentient wants to talk to about 5,000 of them,” Warfield said. “The people in the infield may not know that Sentient is a partner, because it’s not the right target audience. There’s no wasted advertising; it’s 100 percent efficient for who they want to reach.”

Andrew Collins, CEO of Sentient Jet, estimates that the company’s sponsorship of 2016 Derby-winning horse Nyquist garnered $1 million in TV and social impressions. While the company doesn’t have a horse in the race this year, Collins said that the Derby sponsorship helps target its client base of high-net-worth individuals and corporate executives.

“One of our cardholders’ top affinities is horse racing,” he said. “It allows us to bring our customers in for a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Beautyrest is working with the Derby to promote its luxury line of mattress, Beautyrest Black, which are aimed at affluent, older millennials and Gen Xers. Beautyrest and Mattress Firm are hosting a lounge with a cooling station, on-site massages and shoe shines as well as a contest in which Derby attendees can win mattresses and custom jewelry.

“We wanted to introduce these new products to a younger audience, and we thought there’s no better place to do that than the Kentucky Derby,” said Jim Gallman, evp of Beautyrest brand. “It’s a huge social gathering, and there are plenty of affluent millennials and Gen Xers, so it’s a perfect fit.”

Ram Trucks, meanwhile, places most of its on-site ads in the infield, general admission and stable areas.

“They want horse trailers to be towed by Ram trucks and for the farm workers to be driving Rams, so they activate in the stable area and have seen sales lift,” Warfield said. “It’s an example of how our sponsors can reach the broad audience of the Derby, from luxury to mainstream.”

Ghirardelli is targeting the entire range of derby fans to launch its new Dark Chocolate Bourbon Caramel Squares with on-site sampling and recipes posted on the brand’s and the Derby’s social channels.