3 Content Marketing and Branding Lessons from the Kentucky Derby

Jonathan Crowe by

Kentucky Derby 2014-0214

Image courtesy of Bill Brine

It’s the first Saturday in May and that means one thing: It’s Derby Day.

And what a wonderful, strange, and glorious day it is — a day full of mint juleps, pomp and pageantry, more preposterous hats than you can shake a jockey at, and, oh yeah, a horse race that lasts two minutes.

What has always amazed me about the Kentucky Derby is how something so small gets blown up into something so big. As far as sporting events go, horse racing is absolutely at the back of the pack, and the fact that you can take a long swig of bourbon and miss the entire thing would seemingly be a big strike against it, too.

But the magic trick of the Derby is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If it were just about a horse race the audience would be a jockey-sized niche (last jockey joke, I promise), but the Derby is about so much more. It’s about the build up, the tradition, and the fashion (did I mention the hats?).

That’s why there will be 8.5 hours of Kentucky Derby coverage on NBC and NBC Sports Network today, why 14.5 million will tune in, and why the Derby is the only annual sporting event that draws more women viewers than men.

It’s a remarkable work of showmanship, really, and there are definitely a few branding lessons content marketers everywhere can learn from it.

 3 Branding Lessons Content Marketers Can Learn from the Odd, Irresistible Majesty of the Kentucky Derby

1) Know Your Audience Segments

One of the secrets to the Derby’s longevity and success as a brand (today marks the 139th running) has been its ability to gather a variety of distinct, otherwise incompatible groups under the same figurative tent.

For example, it appeals and caters not only to this audience:

Derby Day

Image courtesy of Jon Clegg

But this audience, as well (ah, the infield).

Those are two vastly different Derby experiences (the stands and the infield at Churchill Downs may only be separated by a narrow track, but they’re a world apart). Yet, somehow, both are offered at the same time, and incredibly, everyone walks (or stumbles) away happy.

Your company likely has more than one type of customer and buyer, as well, and messaging that resonates with one may not be effective or appropriate for another.

Take a page from the Derby — segment your audiences, find out what appeals to each, and offer them different experiences, accordingly.

Related content from the OpenView team:

Tien Anh Nguyen has a great post on segmenting your website to appeal to the right audience you might find useful and Brandon Hickie has put together a series on developing buyer personas that’s a must-read for B2B marketers.


2) If You Want to Stand Out You Have to Get Creative (& Visual)


Image courtesy of Joanna Poe

All eyes may be glued to the horses (bad word choice) for the two minutes they’re racing, but for the rest of the time the Derby is a zoo of strutting peacocks vying for attention. If you want to stand out you better come dressed to impress (or in the case of the infield, show up not really dressed at all).

Just as in the world of marketing, competition is fierce and the bar is constantly being raised. Every year at the Derby the hats get bigger and the infield costumes get more and more wonderfully bizarre. The best find a creative way to be memorable, and as a content marketer that’s your task, as well. Never settle for dull when you can go big and bold.

Related content:

Looking for real-world marketing inspiration? Check out our list highlighting 10 examples of the most creative B2B marketing tactics online. And for an example of a truly visionary content strategy, see my look inside GE’s ecomagination content factory.

3) Make It All about Audience Participation

Derby Day

Image courtesy of Joe Schlabotnik

The beauty of the Derby is that so much of the focus really isn’t on the race, itself, but rather on the audience. And so many of the focal aspects are things we can all participate in from home, too.

Crazy hats? Check. Mint juleps? Double check. Racing the horses? Okay, no, but we can sure gamble on them!

As an event it perfectly captures the three core things YouTube’s Kevin Allocca says are responsible for viral success:

  1. Tastemakers (Yep, there’s Zooey Deschanel in a funny hat.)
  2. Communities of Participation (the masses are muddling mint as I type)
  3. Unexpectedness (that guy who ran across the port-o-potties in the infield was wearing what?)

Keep that in mind next time you’re generating a big piece of content. Make it about your audience, not about you. And make it something they can share, participate in, take ownership of, and make their own.

Enjoy the Derby, everyone. I’m off to place a bet on Goldencents. I’d be a fool to go against Rick Petino at this point, plus my original favorite, Fear The Kitten was scratched (who saw that one coming?).



Senior Content Manager