By Hans Ebert

It was Champions Day in Hong Kong on Sunday- the second year for this race meeting and the first with a sponsor. It’s now branded FWD Champions Day, with the insurance company, part of Pacific Century Group, being new to horse racing.

As someone in marketing, what’s interesting is what the return on investment was for FWD for this sponsorship deal other than “naming rights” and maybe, some ads. Like this one.

Why would a fairly new “Pan Asian” insurance company sponsor a horse racing event?

FWD must have had a good reason. Maybe it had to do with its name FWD and forward thinking?

Maybe this was a sign to inspire those on course? Gawd knows the world needs inspiration these days. How brilliant would it be for the global image of horse racing, if FWD were the catalyst to make this happen?

FWD Champions Day certainly had the a very good cast from the world of horse racing- top runners and riders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

In the lead role was of course Beauty Generation. And after its ninth straight win of the season on Sunday, this time taking out the Group One Champions Mile in his usual facile fashion and, again, beating the usual suspects, it’s now about what the future might hold for this champion galloper- overseas.

Reading the newspapers and glancing at social media the next day, yes, there was coverage of the race meeting with plenty of column inches given to the winners of the three Group One races including the most absorbing and exciting of them all.

This was when Japan’s Win Bright took out the QE 11 Cup at 480 to 1 for the team of jockey Matsami Matsuoka and trainer Yoshihiro Hatakeyama.

Personally, it was the ‘Feel Good’ moment of the meeting- a Japanese jockey and trainer and horse winning their first race- a Group One race- in Hong Kong.

Like asking, Where’s Waldo, where was FWD in all these celebrations? In all this huge opportunity for publicity?

With its love for gossip on Hong Kong’s rich and famous, the Chinese newspapers’ cup runneth over with photographs of Richard Li, youngest son of billionaire Li Ka-shing and Chairman of the Pacific Century Group, the holding company of FWD, and his new girlfriend, below. What this had to do with FWD Champions Day escaped me. Still, you know what they say about publicity…

Having worked on the Martell business when the brand was associated with the running of the Grand National, there was always a very strong trade strategy and consumer advertising campaign in place that gave the sponsor plenty of brand awareness. Globally.

Part of Seagram’s, who also owned Universal Music- and Chivas Regal which flirted with getting involved in horse racing and its “Winning and celebratory” theme- Martell combined with music and gave the Grand National a significant boost.

With main competitor Hennessy targeting the affluent and aspirational market with the brassy “Hey, Big Spender” being its theme song, Martell ran with its competitive “When You Know” theme, meaning that there was no need, like Hennessy, to scream out, “LOOK HOW RICH I AM AND MY PLAYBOY LIFESTYLE!”

One just knew what was good. This included different the good things in life including different genres of music.

All this not only helped the branding of the Grand National and Martell. It had a rub-off effect on marketing horse racing through music and other forms of entertainment.

As for FWD, with its name, there’s so much that could be done. Or could have been done. Perhaps even being marketing savvy enough to ride on the coattails of the wins of Win Bright, Beat The Clock and all the excitement and publicity surrounding Beauty Generation. Maybe that Fast Forward button will be pushed next year…

There are lessons to be learned from the sponsorship of Champions Day by FWD.

Like the Everest, the Pegasus- if it’s still around- Sheikh Mo’s annual garden party in Meydan, the All Star Mile, the Arc, the Yasuda Kinen, the Championships and a couple of others, these big horse racing meetings, no matter how much they’re hyped, really is where the same old same old meet the same old same old with a slightly different cast and watched through streaming, simulcasts or on course by basically the same old same old audience.

The “plot” is the same. And with little or no sustainability and seemingly, no new creative revenue streams, where’s it all leading?

Where are the game changers? Or does the game want to change?

It might not be obvious, but if horse racing is to become part of the much bigger world of sports entertainment, it needs partners- partners outside of horse racing and with very different ways of approaching business with their teams and databases about consumer trends and proven experience in advertising and consumer marketing.

Add to this, big name sponsors- relevant sponsors- and everything they can bring to the party. In Hong Kong, the HKJC does this very well with BMW. It’s where two different types of horsepower meet and is a win-win situation for both parties.

Same goes for the SaSa sponsored Ladies Day where beauty and some of the best in horse racing come together.

Of course for horse racing, the challenge is to be seen by potential sponsors as an attractive and viable product with the ability to spread its wings and grow. And soar.

Horse racing needs everything and more than what’s mentioned above. It needs teamwork with savvy marketers.

Horse racing clubs know their (racing) product inside out. But they can’t be expected to know everything. The danger is when they think they do. This leads nowhere. Why? There’s no FWD- forward thinking.

Perhaps, just perhaps, FWD and the HKJC have come together at the right time. Perhaps the generic sounding Champions Day will be an important first step in breaking with “tradition” and predictability?

Like keeping that captive audience, but, more importantly, also offering more of everything that will attract almost everyone else? And for this to happen there must be some integrated marketing that will result in long term Forward Thinking.

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