Marketing campaign hopes to attract millennials to horse racing

April 9, 2013


America’s Best Racing’s ambassadors, left to right, are Hallie Hardy, John Cox, Jose Contreras, Mary Frances Dale, Chip McGaughey and Victoria Garofalo. The bus tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and ends at the Breeders’ Cup in Los Angeles in November. Photos by Tom Eblen 


The centerpiece of The Jockey Club’s $5 million marketing campaign to attract more young fans to Thoroughbred racing rolled into Lexington this week.

A brightly painted hospitality bus with six horse-racing “ambassadors” between ages 22 and 27 is on a national tour. The tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and will end in November at the Breeders’ Cup outside Los Angeles.

Before leaving Lexington for Louisville on Sunday, the bus will be at The Red Mile on Wednesday for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club meeting, at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside with some well-known jockeys, in the parking lot of Tin Roof on South Limestone on Friday night, and at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday.

Kip Cornett, president of Lexington-based Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, said the campaign grew out of a McKinsey & Co. study that The Jockey Club commissioned three years ago.

It concluded that one of racing’s biggest opportunities to increase the fan base was by doing more with special events, such as the Kentucky Derby. The research showed that 1.8 million people ages 18 to 34 watch the Derby on television, yet they pay little attention to Thoroughbred racing most of the year, Cornett said.

So the Jockey Club created a strategy similar to ESPN’s GameDay events to reach young people. That included an advertising campaign; a website,; and the bus with six ambassadors chosen from 150 videotaped applications.

Three of the ambassadors are from Central Kentucky; the others are from California, Georgia and Tennessee. All plan careers in the Thoroughbred industry and hope this gig will help them learn and make good contacts.

During the 17-stop bus tour, the ambassadors are trying to attract peers not only to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but to the fashion, celebrity and party “lifestyle” surrounding it. They have given away a lot of souvenir jockey goggles and have registered hundreds of people for a contest to win an all-expenses-paid trip for four to the Derby.

The ambassadors identify young leaders and those with big social media followings in each city, take them to the local track and show them a good time in the hope that they will encourage their friends and social media followers to try racing.

The ambassadors also scout popular venues to take the bus — “places where people like us would hang out,” said José Contreras of Long Beach, Calif., who said he “started reading the Daily Racing Form before I could read books.”

“I’ve been surprised by how many people really want to talk to us,” said Hallie Hardy of Frankfort, an equestrian for most of her life.

When the bus was at the Florida Derby last month, Chip McGaughey of Lexington said young Miami leaders were given behind-the-scenes tours of Gulfstream Park and showed how pari-mutuel betting works. Based on the initial efforts, the strategy seems to be working.

“Winning them some money definitely helps,” McGaughey said.


Beyond LFUCG: How Lexington could improve its brand?

March 2, 2013

I got a lot of response to last Sunday’s column. Many readers shared my dislike for Lexington’s clunky official name, Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, and its even more awkward acronym, LFUCG.

And then there was the silly sounding State of the Merged Government address, the annual speech the mayor gives at a high-profile luncheon sponsored by the Lexington Forum, a civic discussion group.

Why not, I asked, just call it the State of the City speech?

Board members of the Lexington Forum agreed, and, before the day was out, they had voted unanimously by email to change the name.

“We just felt like the old name was passé,” said Winn Stephens, the Lexington Forum’s president. “It was time to think of us all as the City of Lexington. Nobody with any marketing or public relations savvy would come up with a moniker like LFUCG.”

A few readers said they worried that a “city” emphasis might somehow devalue Fayette County’s strong rural tradition.

But others doubted that would happen. Ask anyone from elsewhere what they think of when they think of Lexington and the first things they are likely to mention are horses and green pastures.

lexsealOther readers took aim at the city’s official seal. To refresh your memory, the seal is a circle surrounded by the words “Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Kentucky.” Inside the circle are four local symbols: a horse shoe; tobacco leaves; 1775, when Lexington was named for the recently fought first battle of the American Revolution; and Transylvania University’s Old Morrison hall, a symbol of Lexington’s education heritage and historic architecture.

As government seals go, it’s not bad. But, as an all-purpose logo or flag, it doesn’t do Lexington justice.

“Could we redo our city’s flag?” reader James Bright asked in an email. “The current flag seems to be a history lesson that must be read to be understood. Learning is good. I am a teacher after all. But it is way too busy.”

Bright noted other cities, such as Chicago and Cincinnati, that have more elegant and inspiring flags.

I have always liked the flag of Washington, D.C., with its three stars and two stripes taken from George Washington’s coat of arms, and the flags of Louisville and New Orleans, which feature the traditional French fleurs-de-lis.

Bright suggested a competition among local artists to design a new city flag. That could be a good place to start.

Open design competitions often produce better (and less expensive) results than hiring a company to develop ideas. We saw an example of that recently, when the Town Branch Commons design competition attracted some of the world’s top landscape architects and produced impressive results.

Whatever local symbolism is chosen for Lexington’s flag should be adaptable to other “logo” uses, as is done with the fleurs-de-lis in Louisville and New Orleans.

The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has gotten a lot of mileage out of the “blue horse” — the Pentagram design firm’s adaptation of Edward Troye’s 1868 portrait of the great stallion Lexington, rendered in Wildcat blue.

I think the blue horse is a brilliant symbol for promoting local tourism. But Lexington is more than a one-horse town. Despite the name Bluegrass and the popularity of University of Kentucky athletics, I see Lexington, with its lush farmland next to urban areas, as more of a green city than a blue city.

Image and marketing are important. They create a brand that both attracts outsiders and engenders pride among locals. Think about it: the guys behind the guerrilla “Kentucky Kicks Ass” promotional campaign have sold a lot of T-shirts.

Of course, Mayor Jim Gray and members of the Urban County Council have bigger issues to worry about, so this probably isn’t at the top of their agenda. There are pensions to fund, budgets to balance and water-quality problems to solve from all of that farmland converted into subdivisions over the years.

But it is good to put these sorts of ideas out for public discussion and debate. When we just leave it up to government, we can end up with things like, well, LFUCG.

Maker’s Mark quick change earned barrels of free publicity

February 25, 2013


Rob and Bill Samuels at the Maker’s Mark distillery, March 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen


I’m not saying Bill and Rob Samuels planned this all along, but I sure wondered last week when I heard they had quickly canceled plans to water down Maker’s Mark whisky to make supplies go further.

Maybe I wondered because Bill Samuels is one of America’s sharpest marketers, or because I was a business editor at the Atlanta newspapers when the New Coke affair was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Whatever the case, the Maker’s Mark affair was anything but the “debacle” some media reports called it. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s what happened:

Rob Samuels, who has been taking over the reins of the Beam Inc. brand from his father, announced Feb. 9 that there just wasn’t enough Maker’s Mark to keep up with demand, despite the distillery’s frequent expansions in recent years.

So, he said, they had decided to dilute their bourbon from 45 percent alcohol, or 90 proof, to 42 percent alcohol, or 84 proof. They said the decision was made after much testing to make sure that a tad more water wouldn’t change the taste.

Nine days later, Rob Samuels reversed course, saying, “You spoke. We listened.” He said the company, which has its offices in Louisville and its distillery near the Marion County town of Loretto, got thousands of complaints from loyal customers who didn’t want their favorite bourbon messed with.

The Samuelses had to know there would be pushback, because bourbon lovers are a tradition-loving bunch. There’s a reason Kentucky bourbon has been marketed for more than a century under labels of “old” this and “old” that.

Bourbon’s popularity is booming around the world, and a big reason is that so much good stuff is now being made. A few decades ago, when many bourbon distillers were producing mediocre stuff, Maker’s Mark was one of the few quality choices. Now, the top shelf is a crowded place, with dozens of great bourbons to suit every taste.

The Maker’s Mark affair will go down in marketing textbooks as another stroke of Samuels genius. Think about it: if nobody had complained, the distillery would have had more bourbon to sell. When, predictably, customers raised hell, Maker’s Mark got a barrel full of free publicity.

Kentucky should embrace the creativity, if not the slogan

January 6, 2013

Kentucky kicks ass. Often, unfortunately, its own.

To stay with anatomical metaphors, Kentuckians are good at shooting ourselves in the foot. We consider creative people to be a thorn in our side, because new ideas can be a pain in the neck.

So I wasn’t surprised at the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism’s tone-deaf response to three 30-something advertising men from Lexington who suggested that “Kentucky Kicks Ass” would be a more effective state marketing slogan than “Unbridled Spirit.”

The suggestion came from Kentucky for Kentucky, a little company formed two years ago by Griffin VanMeter of Bullhorn Creative, Whit Hiler of Cornett-IMS and fellow Lexington native Kent Carmichael, who works for Energy BBDO in Chicago.

Kentucky for Kentucky began as a hobby — an online platform for celebrating the young men’s pride in their state, its people, places, history and “general awesomeness.”

They started with a Facebook page and website. Then, in the fall of 2011, they drew national attention with an unsuccessful online campaign to raise $3.5 million for a commercial promoting Kentucky on the Super Bowl telecast.

Their kick-ass branding idea was unveiled last month in a cheeky YouTube video that also attracted national attention. In the video, Hiler and VanMeter argued that the “Unbridled Spirit” slogan state government has used since 2004 is, well, lame.

(Maybe so, but it is a big improvement over “It’s that Friendly,” which appeared on Kentucky license plates from 2002-2005 along with a smiley-faced sun that looked like it belonged in a Walmart ad.)

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys hired Lexington artists Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press to design a cool Kentucky Kicks Ass logo, which they have printed on T-shirts and other merchandise for sale on their website,

They also created some sample tourism ads that cleverly promote Kentucky’s places and culture while minimizing the word they acknowledge may offend some people.

State tourism officials were not amused.

“We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology,” spokesman Pat Stipes told a USA Today reporter. “These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one.”

For these ambitious marketers, that fuddy-duddy response was a gift.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” VanMeter said. “It really gave this a lot more legs than it had.”

The controversy generated even more press coverage — and a lot of orders for Kentucky Kicks Ass T-shirts. VanMeter also has received emails from organizations within Kentucky, and as far away as Arizona, seeking creative help for their own rebranding efforts.

State Tourism Commissioner Mike Mangeot sent the guys a letter offering congratulations for a slogan that has “generated a lot of buzz about Kentucky and all our beautiful Commonwealth has to offer.” But he insisted they clarify that state government neither sought nor sanctioned their work.

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys replied to Mangeot with a letter from their lawyer, Scott White, saying they never meant to imply such a thing.

The letter also included an open-records request for all “emails, notes, written correspondence, memoranda” and any other communication with state government discussing his clients and their slogan. White said state officials had not responded as of Friday.

When I called tourism officials for comment, spokesman Gil Lawson offered only this statement: “We applaud the creativity and efforts of these three gentlemen. It’s great that they support their home state of Kentucky.”

I hope that when the Kentucky for Kentucky guys receive a response to their open-records request, it will include internal communication among high-ranking state officials that goes something like this:

“Our strategy worked perfectly! By playing the role of clueless bureaucrats we generated a lot of free publicity for Kentucky. Of course, we can’t actually endorse their slogan. We would rather be boring than take the chance of offending anyone. But what can we do to quietly support this kind of home-grown creativity?”

Bullhorn grows from pizza talk to successful agency

March 5, 2012

Creative director Adam Kuhn, project manager Lindsay Rall, partner Brad Flowers, producer Angela Baldridge, contract videographer Ian Friley, partner Griffin VanMeter, and interns Brooke Hurley and Elliot Olson Photo by Angela Baldridge; photo by Baldridge by Ian Friley

Like many successful business partnerships, Griffin VanMeter and Brad Flowers got together in 2008 and built a company because, well, they needed work.

VanMeter had bought and fixed up some North Lexington rental property. Flowers had been a mechanic at Pedal Power Bike Shop.

Both had spent a lot of free time on community projects. Flowers chaired the Mayor’s Bike Task Force and helped organize Bike Lexington and the Shifting Gears charity bike program for Pedal Power and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. VanMeter had organized a bike race and helped friends launch Stella’s Deli and Al’s Bar.

They met at Al’s Bar over ping pong during Flowers’ 30th birthday party in November 2007. They discovered they both had common interests in branding, marketing, event promotion and good pizza. They kept talking over dinners of homemade pizza.

Finally, in fall 2008, they decided to launch a business called Bullhorn. But what kind of business?

“It literally came down to a coin flip between Bullhorn the pizza restaurant and Bullhorn the branding and marketing company,” VanMeter, 31, said.

Branding and marketing won the toss. Now in its fourth year, Bullhorn is getting a lot of attention for its branding creativity and marketing efforts for Lexington businesses and community organizations.

The company recently won its biggest contract yet after answering a request for proposals to bring better design and consistency to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s communications with citizens.

Rather than each city agency designing its own public communications its own way, Bullhorn will create templates for city employees to use, beginning with the annual Fun Guide calendar. The goal is to improve communication and save the city money, said Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to Mayor Jim Gray.

“Their proposal showed a contemporary, solid design across media,” Shapiro said. “Plus, they clearly love Lexington. They seem like they would do anything to make the city of Lexington shine, and that came across in their proposal.”

(VanMeter donated $1,000 to Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance database.)

A love of Lexington and Kentucky is a consistent theme, both in Bullhorn’s work and the partners’ personalities. Flowers spends a lot of his free time on local bicycle advocacy. VanMeter started a quirky Facebook page, Kentucky for Kentucky, for Kentuckians to share trivia about the state.

Last November, VanMeter and two friends launched a campaign to raise $3.5 million to produce a Super Bowl commercial promoting the greatness of Kentucky. They fell well short of their goal but received priceless international publicity for themselves and Kentucky.

After attending the 2009 Creative Cities Summit in Detroit — and helping to organize one in Lexington the following spring — Flowers and VanMeter sensed that Lexington was changing.

“We were both really inspired by all of these young entrepreneurs who wanted to do something and just did it,” VanMeter said. “We felt like we could see a lot of opportunity, but we needed to change the dialogue about how Lexington saw itself.”

Bullhorn first gained attention for work on behalf of non-profit organizations such as the Blue Grass Community Foundation, Junior League of Lexington, Fayette Alliance and The Plantory, an incubator for social entrepreneurs.

Bullhorn’s first business client was Henkel Denmark landscape. Others have included the local Vespa scooter dealership, Link-Belt Excavators, The Lexington Angler fishing shop, Hayden Construction, Parlay Social and Mt. Brilliant Farm.

About half of Bullhorn’s clients are non-profit organizations. The company has produced several high-quality, storytelling videos that explain an organization or company’s values. The ability to share videos on the Internet makes multimedia storytelling a powerful branding tool that is no longer costly to produce, VanMeter said.

So far, the partners said, they have provided all of Bullhorn’s start-up capital. Revenues have doubled every year. Bullhorn now has three full-time employees, two interns, a part-time bookkeeper and several independent contractors for various services. Bullhorn is looking to hire two more full-time employees: a business-development specialist and a graphic designer.

Bullhorn’s partners hope to keep growing their business without losing its quirky sense of humor and a company atmosphere that encourages outrageous creativity.

“We’re now focusing on making Bullhorn a sustainable business and not just a fun idea,” Flowers said. “As jokey as our public persona is, we’re really serious about being a stable business and staying around.”


Idea Festival: Brain secrets to making sales

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Sales success is not so much about selling. It is about easing potential customers’ pain and fear and appealing to their “reptilian” brain.

That was the message of Patrick Renvoisé, an author and former head of global business development for Silicon Graphics who calls himself an expert in neuromarketing. He studies how the human brain makes buying decisions, and he offered tips for influencing those decisions.

Decisions are primarily governed by the “reptilian” brain — the part of our brain where instinct and basic survival skills reside — rather than the intellectual or emotional parts. The best way to sell customers is to diagnose their pains and fears and offer ways to ease them, Renvoisé said.

“When people want and need your product, what is their pain?” he asked, adding that fear-avoidance is one of the strongest human motivations.

For example, he told the Idea Festival audience on Thursday, Dominos Pizza figured out years ago that people who ordered delivery pizza were more anxious about when it would arrive than how good it would taste. Thus, the Dominos sales pitch of delivery within 30 minutes or the pizza was free.

After easing pain and calming fears, appealing to emotions is important. “We make emotional decisions and then try to rationalize them, not vice versa,” Renvoisé said.

Other advice: explain how your product is different and better than competitors’ products, and prove it somehow. Also, keep your message simple and visual.


Promote Kentucky on the Super Bowl? Why not?

September 14, 2011

It is an idea so crazy, it just might work.

Griffin VanMeter, Kent Carmichael and Whit Hiler are 30-something marketing guys. They also are native Kentuckians who are proud of their state and think everyone else should be proud of it, too.

A year ago, they had this idea: Let’s produce a television commercial promoting the “brand” of Kentucky and get it on the Super Bowl telecast.

“We want to show how much character and influence has come out of Kentucky and is still coming out of Kentucky,” VanMeter said. “It’s a big story we’re trying to tell, and we want to put it on the biggest stage possible. It would be the most talked-about Super Bowl commercial ever.”

The trio began in April by creating a Facebook page called Kentucky for Kentucky. Since then, more than 1,950 fans have contributed to lists and photo galleries of great Kentucky people, places and products.

Kent Carmichael, left, Griffin Van Meter, center, and Whit Hiler. Photo by Tom Eblen

Then, on Thursday, they went public with their Super Bowl idea using the hot crowd-funding Web site An Internet video promoting the effort has gone viral, and media attention has come from, among others, the big tech news site and Advertising Age magazine’s Web site.

Their goal is to raise $3.5 million in 60 days. After five days, more than 200 backers have made online pledges of more than $41,000, in increments as small as $1. They have received two $10,000 pledges — “We can see who they are, so we know they’re legit,” said VanMeter, a partner in the Lexington marketing agency Bullhorn.

An effort like this would have been a lot harder before, which lets people pitch creative projects to a huge online audience. Backers pledge as little as $1 or as much as they want, but their credit card isn’t charged unless the idea reaches its fund-raising goal by the specified deadline.

Backers will get prizes: bumper stickers, T-shirts, maybe even a cameo appearance in the commercial. But unless the $3.5 million goal is met by Nov. 7, nobody is on the hook.

“Once we get this groundswell of support, some of the big people will get behind it,” VanMeter said. “Besides, this whole idea is so much bigger than a Super Bowl commercial.”

So what is the idea, really?

“The short answer is that it’s about Kentucky pride,” he said.

“As brands go, Kentucky is an awesome brand,” said Hiler, who works for Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions in Lexington. “It’s a lot cooler than Doritos. We’ve got years on them.”

He has a point: Kentucky was America’s first Western frontier and has produced the likes of Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali and George Clooney. It is the namesake of two of the world’s best-known brands — Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Kentucky Derby. Kentuckians have created everything from bourbon whiskey and bluegrass music to the traffic signal and the high five.

But, Carmichael noted, any Kentuckian who has lived elsewhere has heard the jokes about going shoeless and marrying your cousin.

Kentucky has more than its share of problems, including too much obesity and too little education.

“People need to believe in Kentucky, and that can help solve a lot of problems,” VanMeter said.

“There’s no agenda, no reason for anyone not to like this idea,” said Carmichael, a Lexington native and a copywriter for Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder, Colo. He said the three of them don’t plan to make any money on this project and are not fronting for any company, political group or “official” anything.

If they raise the money in time to reserve a commercial spot on the Super Bowl telecast Feb. 5, what will they do?

“The least of our worries will be getting the commercial made,” Hiler said.

With $3.5 million worth of public momentum, the three marketers said, they think Kentucky producers, directors, writers and actors would rush to help them make one awesome Kentucky commercial. Are you listening, George Clooney, Jerry Bruckheimer and Ashley Judd?

And if they don’t make it to the Super Bowl? Well, they already have drawn a lot of positive attention to an outrageously creative idea coming out of Kentucky. And that’s sort of the point.