Positioning Racing

In the late 1970s, the groundbreaking book “Positioning; the Battle for Your Mind” was published. To this very day, it is often quoted by marketers. The authors contend that you, your business, or your organization must define who you are and market that definition into your customers' minds. You “position” yourself, and hope that the position you have carved out is a good one. If it is, you succeed; if it is not, you fail.

If we look at business history there are numerous examples of successful companies who have positioned themselves and stuck with that positioning message:
  • Walmart positioned itself as a leader on price. Low prices are what we think of when we hear the name Walmart.
  • Mercedes positioned itself as class, power, speed and excellence. It is not a car, it is an experience.
  • In an often used example, Avis positioned itself as the "#2 car rental brand," but said "we try harder." That resonated with people (they stood out by saying they were not #1) and positioned them as a can do company who wants your business.
  • In 1969 Coke's slogan was "the real thing". They were a part of Americana and that slogan was embraced by their customers. In 1985 when they became "New Coke" and directly challenged that position in a consumers mind, we all know what happened. It was a complete disaster, one which they were forced to rectify within three months.
According to the authors, there are six questions related to positioning, and if you cannot answer these questions, you are in a heap of trouble before you even start:
  • What position do you currently own?
  • What position do you want to own?
  • Whom you have to defeat to own the position you want?
  • Do you have the resources to do it?
  • Can you persist until you get there?
  • Are your tactics supporting the positioning objective you set?
So, does racing position itself properly? Let’s ask those questions as they pertain to our sport.

One, what position do you currently own? Ask 10 people in racing, you will get 10 different answers.

Two, what position do you want to own? Again, ask 10 people, you will get 10 different answers. Some want to own the family market and do on-track promos for families. Others want to own the college kid market, by offering bands after the races. Some want to sell us as pure entertainment (just look at almost any racing commercial ever made -- a gaggle of people watching a horse race and cheering). Others want to sell us as pure gambling, and to somehow get those slot players over to bet racing. It is not a question of what we have a chance to own, it tends to be a question of what we wished we owned, almost in an utopian way, or wholly dependent on what faction in racing you represent.

Three, whom do you have to defeat to own the position you want? Sensing a pattern? Again, 10 different answers from 10 different people -- we must beat slots, lotteries, poker, pro sports, and so on. Pick a number, any number.

Four, do you have resources to do it? With hundreds of organizations all with completely different visions of what to do, this one seems tough to even begin to answer. We probably have the resources, but in no way have a vision.

Five, can you persist until you get there? With handle falling and no real plan emerging, it is hard to be confident.

Six, are your tactics supporting the positioning objective you set? I think the above shows we have not even been able to set an objective. If you have no objective, your tactics are probably not very good.

I think it is fairly safe to say that racing has failed in positioning itself properly. The question we might ask is: Is it too late?

Several years ago, former marketing executive Gibson Carothers wrote an article that won an honorable mention at the Eclipse Awards'. In it he said, “It's amazing how many advertisers confuse their real market with the market they would like to have. In all my years in advertising, I can't recall a client [racing] who was so conflicted about its own product."

I think he is 100% right. We do not know what our product is, and if we can not define who we are, marketing spending is perfunctory at best. We all wish we could market to everyone, we all wish racing was mainstream and on cereal boxes or prime time television, but what we wish for is irrelevant, it is who we are that matters.

It seems that spending money to have racing shown on television like some organizations do, or spending money without a plan -- marketing to the mass market without a proper positioning message -- is futile. But what should we do? That is the million dollar question. In my opinion, I agree with Mr. Carothers -- we must position racing as a thinking man's (or woman’s) lottery -- and all else be damned.

Going back to a couple of our six questions:

For the “what position do we currently own” question (or want to own question), we do have a good shot to own one with my premise. How many times have you seen a horseplayer make a score on a longshot where he tells you the methodology of his pick, like he just cured the common cold? I bet you have heard stories like that countless times. Now, how many times have you heard a lottery or slots player speak of the methodology behind how she bought a ticket, or hit a button on a slot machine to make a score? Never. It takes no skill, and they will show no pride when they win. They are simply happy to say that they won.

Racing is a puzzle, and people who enjoy racing are puzzle-masters. Poker has taken a pile of this positioning away from us (notice they market themselves as a thinking person’s game) but I would contend we need to own this market. Regardless, I believe trying to sell racing to people who get a kick out of hitting a button, or playing numbers will not increase our market share.

For those who would say concentrating on one type of customer pigeonholes us, I would say that is unimportant and in fact the antithesis of what successful companies are doing in this century. Trying to be everything to everyone has failed us, so why repeat it? As well, I do not think we should sell our game short. I remember having a nice dinner at the track last spring. Beside me was a newbie and she was learning to play the game from a regular. She immediately took ownership of the puzzle in front of her and picked two show bets that cashed in a row. The pride on her face was delightful to watch. When that newbie comes to the track to play the puzzle and not for a free cap, it pre-qualifies her and others to play the game -- the game we are selling. Why would we want to sell the game to people who won't come back?

By targeting our marketing to the subset of people who are likely to enjoy the game, we improve our return on ad spend. For example, in internet marketing we can spend money and drive traffic to a site - that's easy. But if that traffic bounces out and does not return it is wasted traffic and wasted money. Bringing people to the track who are not pre-qualified to come back is equally wasted marketing spend. That might sound like common sense to you, but it is the exact opposite of what we are currently doing.

How do we get at these people (and this gets to the other three or four questions)? I think by honing our message to a targeted customer. Just like Mercedes sells their cars as an experience, and not on their gas mileage, or kids seats, we sell the puzzle and the game, to the people who enjoy such pursuits:
  • How many times do we hear that we should be selling the horses, like a match race between Rachel and Zenyatta. In contrast, how many times have we heard we should be selling the intricacies of completing the puzzle, on who will win between the two if they met? We need more of the latter and less of the former.
  • How many times do we see an ADW offer a clock radio for a gazillion “points,” somehow selling us like we are a Costco or drugstore points card customer? In contrast, how many ADW's give the puzzle-player cash rewards to help them have more money in their bank to continue playing the game instead? Cash rewards equal a better chance to win, and more customer loyalty to continue to improve their game playing. If they want a clock radio they can use their winnings from the fifth race and stop at Walmart (there are low prices there, remember?) on the way home.
  • How many television features go on and on about a human interest story about a horse, the caretaker of the horse, or the owner of the horse. Instead, what if we analyzed speed figures in the upcoming race on the horses, complete with showing fair odds lines, to help a player generate profit from her puzzle solving? It again goes back to the "throw stuff against a wall and hope it sticks" marketing plan, rather than honing the simple game playing message.
I think by deciding on, and sharpening our message, we can do better.

In another piece of fine marketing writing, the authors wrote, "Success often leads to arrogance, and arrogance to failure." Racing was once successful; people flocked to the track by the millions to watch and bet racing. But it was built on a house of cards. Patrons were not there because they loved us or that we were doing everything right, they were there because there was nowhere else to go. We were a monopoly and we lived the high life that often comes with being one, and that did breed arrogance. Because of this, I believe we have erroneously decided that racing's loss of market share is not our problem, but the problem of the general public, for not seeing us like they used to. The reality is that they never saw us like we think they did. And that is our problem, not our customers'.

We are never going back to the days of old with packed grandstands -- it is pure folly to think that. In 2011 and beyond we must compete and win, by being what we are. Knowing who we are, honing our message and marketing to that message as a singular mission is one way to perhaps help racing. Marketing to what we are not, or what we wish we were, will only worsen the problem.

The good news is that repositioning can and does happen. Honda was positioned as a motorbike company in Japan years ago. When they tried to sell a car to the Japanese market they were crushed, because the Japanese consumer did not want to buy a car from a motorcycle company. But they entered the US market with a new "position" to a new market. They used the fact that they were a cutting-edge company who made great products as their major message, and did not deviate from that message. It was ingrained in the minds of the American consumer, and the rest is history.

I think the time has come for a repositioning of racing. Marketing to the mass-market is a concept that should be shelved. I believe the NTRA and others should work on an industry wide marketing program that filters from the top, all the way down to each track and organization. It will have one simple message: Horse racing is a game ....... and you will have the time of your life playing it.

I have been having a chat on Twitter with Marc from the DRF and Dan from Thorotrends, an email exchange with Bob Marks of Perretti Farms, and noticed a good comment below by "Tinky" on yesterday's marketing piece. This energized me to reprint the above post written for r2. I welcome any comments.


Anonymous said...

thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

You can sell poker like this because there ARE winners. Horse racing has SOME winners, but with 25% takeout they are few and far between. How do we expect "smart" people to embrace racing when after three weeks they don't have enough money to buy themselves their morning coffee??? Morons have killed the lovely game of horse racing with mind-boggling takeouts.

See you at the poker tables.... the IRS might be after them but they WILL be here forever, because participants have a chance to win at them.


The Cowboy Squirrel said...

Though it may be a reblog...it is still brilliant!

The_Knight_Sky said...

Where it the PRINT button for this post. Need to digest every morsel before commenting.

Hertz was number 1 at that time believe?

That Blog Guy said...

Dean, you have hit it out of the ball park. Now who do we get involved in figuring this out?

Anonymous said...

Excellent PTP!

When Home Depot realized that similar companies like Lowes and Rona began competing with their prices, they decided to go one step further, and not only sell you remodelling and renovation materials, but give the consumer step by step in-store classes to teach you how to do it. This type of marketing actually made me want to purchase my bathroom tiling at Home Depot, because then I knew they would teach me how to install it properly and I would save on hiring a contractor.


Bob Marks said...

I keep going back to the brainchild of two gifted promoters Dick Ebersole of NBC Sports and Vince McMahon of World Wrestling called the XFL….

After all the glitz and technological glamour, half naked cheerleaders and whatever hoopla brains can dream up what remained was the product.

The FOOTBALL… Sub-par lousy Football vastly inferior to the NFL… Of course it failed miserably….

What we have is HORSE RACING….. Pari Mutuel horse racing…

I was one of the original chart commentators for SPORTS EYE back in the Stone Ages and half the time we had to do it outside in the grandstand as they wouldn’t let us in the Press Box—At both Yonkers and Roosevelt… Forget the fact that we were helping the handle by educating bettors. It was “dirty”, it was “gambling”…

The same thing occurred when we were doing Tip Sheets, TOP TROTTER and the ORANGE HORSE…

Back then, I concluded that every racetrack official should spend a period of apprenticeship as a handicapper in which his weekly salary would be in proportion to the amount of winners he could pick.. Then and ONLY then would he have the foggiest idea of what the constituents are actually doing at the racetrack…


Highgunner said...

Anonymous said... "Morons have killed the lovely game of horse racing with mind-boggling takeouts."
And please add by establishing a "Disposable Culture" that produces throw-away horses and the public does not want to bet on throw-aways. As one person said to me about why he would not got to the track: 'I won't bet on a horse that I feel will soon be thrown in the trash bin.'

@Highgunner - The voice for the "Unwanted Thoroughbred"

ML/NJ said...

Wow! Do I ever agree (mostly) with you. The idea of advertising the "Big Horse" who might show up three times a year really tells people they are schmucks if they come out to the track on a Thursday.

Years ago I recommended to the NYRA that they place an ad every day in the NYT headlined, "Who's Gonna Win This Race?" showing the PPs for one race to be run that day. (Of course the NYT is dying too so that wouldn't work anymore.) But solving the puzzle is the thing that got me hooked, and I would guess that just about everyone who pays more than five admissions a year also likes to play the puzzle game.

But I do disagree about the stands never being full again. They're full at Saratoga, Keeneland, and Del Mar. They were full at the Big A too, back when the subway posters used to proclaim, "BIG, BOLD, BEAUTIFUL BIG-A."

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