By Hans Ebert

When it comes to marketing just about anything, Japan is in a different league. The thinking is not only out of the box, it’s totally off the wall.

It’s something observed and studied when with Universal Music and then EMI Music. One thing we never did was interfere with the marketing plans of our Japanese teams. They knew the lay of the land.

They had their own ways to promote our acts. This always included components like sync deals through working closely with the country’s biggest advertising agencies like Dentsu.

To then build on this and broaden fan bases, local and visiting international artists were booked on the most highly rated variety and game shows. An artist would know they had reached “idol” status, when they would have their own line of merchandising.

For a few years, we thought that all this was something uniquely Japanese. We then learned that everything from Japan was like that hit by the Vapors- “Turning Japanese”-so out there that it was cutely cool in almost a Pikachu way.

Even when it comes to horse racing where the marketing of its marquee value names offer very little that’s new and part of Pop culture, Japan goes about doing its own thing and which soon catches on with most of the world.

What the JRA has done for its racing follows the same strategy used to promote those early days of J-Pop- creating idols and focusing on talent and cuteness.

It might have started in Japan, but J-Pop was suddenly huge in Hong Kong and Korea and throughout the region while also capturing the interest of the international media and Western music fans.

This, of course, led to the phenomenal global success of K-Pop and “idol” acts like BTS and their offspring- all million dollar South Korean babies.

With horse racing, while names like Frankie Dettori, Ryan Moore and Oisin Murphy are known for being great riders, their popularity is often associated with the great horses they ride. Apart from the charismatic Italian, they’re not pinup jockeys.

Mickaelle Michel is- the French “idol” jockey from Hyeres who was a champion apprentice in France before making a name for herself in Japan. This was when the JRA invited her to compete in the 2019 All Star Jockey Series in Sapporo.

Not only did she ride her first winner there, she was a joint third in the series. No female jockey had achieved this feat in Japan in 33 years. The media and racing fans fell in love with her.

Her ability to ride a record number of winners on Japan’s second tier NAR circuit where racing is on dirt tracks, didn’t go unnoticed. There was also her likability factor. It’s how she presents herself to Japanese racing fans and the media plus an extremely marketable personality.

The 25 year old Mickaelle Michel is the total package- young, gifted and cute- not unlike the popularity enjoyed in Japan by South African rider Lyle Hewitson and Japan’s own Nanako Fujita.

Whereas one expects the extremely popular and photogenic Nanako Fujita to win over the Japanese racing media and fans, the young French jockey, with former rider Frederic Spanu her agent, mentor and boyfriend, she is already an Instagram favourite and doesn’t go unnoticed on Twitter.

Same goes for Lyle Hewitson who went through a baptism of fire in Hong Kong and did the best he could with the opportunities given. But riding a winner on his first day in Japan was his breakthrough moment. The Japanese racing media became his biggest fans.

All three are idol jockeys and marketed no differently than the most popular J-Pop artists.

Again, it’s about exposure- appearances on television game shows, through merchandising, and, one is tipping that apart from riding winners, Mickaelle Michel, who’s signed with a modelling agency in Japan, will be endorsing a variety of brands. She might already even have her own avatar and an entire series based around the adventures of this character.

Being unable to leave Japan after her contract with the NAR expired because of the travel restrictions brought on by Covid-19, Mickaelle Michel is busy studying to read and write Japanese- mandatory if one is to be granted a full time license by the JRA to ride in the country with the big names there.

All this might be anathema to the dyed in the wool horse racing purist, but being popular with fans can’t be stopped. Neither can changing times.

Personally, horse racing needed this- a new snap, crackle and pop to its marketing. It might not be “accepted” by the hardcore racing media in Europe, the UK and Australia. But if the mainstream media sees something new in horse racing through someone like Mickaelle Michel and which they like and believe their readers will, too, what this will lead to is an exciting blank canvas.

How this will be filled should give “The Sport Of Kings”, the youth what it has never been able to attract.

It’s something horse racing needs as a first step towards making it part of Pop culture… and shaking off the mothballs in old Mother Hubbard’s musky cupboard.

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