A few years ago – two years ago this July, to be exact – we saw the launch of Racing, It’s A Rush, which promised to be the all-singing, all-dancing public marketing face of South African racing. At least, I think that was the intention. It was a little hard to tell – and it’s not got any easier!
When the initiative was launched, I had misgivings, I won’t lie, but gamely decided to give it a chance. I spent several lengthy telephone conversations with the brains behind the concept, a very nice chap called Chris. He was charming, but spoke so much marketing jargon as to be barely intelligible (hands up anyone who knows what a continuity announcer is – without using Google – and has ever used that term in a conversation). We covered aspects such as corporate identity collateral, key deliverables, touch points…. It sounded like English, I just couldn’t understand a word and two hours and 5 pages of notes later, I was still none the wiser. There was talk of budgets, contributors and independent funders, but these were all confidential. “We really want to try and introduce Racing, It’s A Rush as a luxury lifestyle brand and position it so that it’s attractive to luxury lifestyle investors. Our target market is the next generation of racegoers. We want to promote it as a networking and lifestyle opportunity,” enthused Chris, although the exact nature of how this was all going to be achieved remained vague, or ‘to be announced’.
I subsequently assisted in looking over the original website before it was launched and gave my opinions and feedback. I interviewed Michael Varney, the National Marketing Manager for Racing, It’s A Rush. I interviewed Maps Maponyane, one of the programme’s first ambassadors (whatever that means in real terms). Like Chris, he was thoroughly likeable, but coming as he did with no ostensible connection or knowledge of racing, I couldn’t help wondering why he’d been selected – particularly after he refused to engage with a punter asking some seemingly fair questions.
Nevertheless, after much drama and intrigue a few people were issued It’s A Rush badges, the exact point of which has never been made clear, It’s A Rush flags and running boards appeared on our courses, It’s A Rush hosted the Equus Awards, the Sansui Summer Cup, the jockey international and several prawn festivals. The website has been up, down and back up again and there are now also Facebook and Twitter accounts, with varying amounts of traffic, mostly of a one-way nature. A little under a year into the project, Michael Varney resigned and no announcement has been made regarding his replacement.
Then along came Champions Day 2016 and a rather eye-catching poster at Turffontein’s infield. It features a racing scene of a field of horses rounding a bend, overlaid with a photograph of what I presume to be our target demographic fist-pumping and striking other celebratory poses in the left hand corner. On slightly closer inspection, it turns out the photograph is of American racehorses – easily identifiable from their bridle numbers – and secondly, that the picture has been flipped as some of the bridle numbers are depicted the wrong way round.
It made my eyerolly muscles twitch, but as it’s coming up to their second anniversary I thought it a good time to drop It’s A Rush a line, ask a few questions and possibly do a little retrospective of their journey so far. Unfortunately their website doesn’t list any contact details or people, so I dialled Michael Varney’s cell number and Kenilworth Racing’s Jenna Adams picked up.
Questioning the Rush
I thought I’d start with something simple – like who is running the thing. I asked who was responsible for approving the billboard. Additionally I asked for a general overview of the project to date, with a few more details such as what’s it all about, who’s driving it, who’s the team, who’s in charge and more importantly, who’s paying for it? What were the original objectives? Have these been met? Where is Maps? Is the project continuing? If so, what are the current projects / objectives? Is anyone monitoring / measuring any of this? Jenna asked me to put my questions in writing and so I did. And the following day she responded.
“Racing it’s a Rush was created to bring more awareness of the game of racing to a younger market, with the intention of growing the following. RIAR is responsible for ‘hosting’ as opposed to ‘sponsoring’. Its purpose is to welcome newcomers to the game, attract more people to the events and provide an environment to nurture interest in the sport.”
“To date RIAR has hosted many events successfully, some of those mentioned by you – all of the events have been shared on our Social pages should you wish to access them.”
“From our side, we will continue to work on attracting new blood into the sport. Our Facebook page currently has 16K+ followers and Twitter has 2170. We recently started an Instagram account and have also created @RacingGuru for tips. The pages are growing steadily and our audience engage on a regular basis with positive feedback and interest on the sport and the events.”
“As with all advertising campaigns, concepts evolve based on strategy to tap into new markets. The ambassadors represented the brand successfully for the time frame we contracted them and have since redirected our focus on the racing experience itself and not on the celebrities that attend.”
“In terms of artwork, as we are a non-biased organization and as our focus is on attracting newcomers, we select imagery that is non-specific to a local track, horse or jockey where we are able. If we were to use local images we would be showing favoritism and we don’t believe this communicates the right message to the racing fraternity. For the man on the street, the images are bold, stylized and impactful which is how we attract attention.”
“We openly communicate all upcoming events on our Social pages and website so you can be privy to all our upcoming activities.”
As her reply answered some of my questions partially and bypassed others entirely, I tried again, being as specific as I could. Jenna went on leave. In her absence, whoever is in charge of the Facebook feed of the South African racing’s national marketing outfit caused a ruckus by copying and pasting a post wholesale from a newly established equestrian interest Facebook page. The recriminations were long and loud, however, to their credit, whoever manages the It’s A Rush Facebook page (for this remains a mystery) did issue an apology.
I got back on the case of bothering Jenna, who assured me that she had penned a detailed reply to my second email, but was unable to send it as she’d been told not to. She could not tell me by whom though. She also couldn’t tell me who had duffed up the Facebook post (crisis management at its best), nor, it seemed, could she provide answers to any of my questions.
Not that I’m getting at Jenna of course – no point shooting the messenger – assuming she is. While admitting somewhat uncomfortably to being the ‘go to’ person for Racing, It’s A Rush, she confirmed that she is not in charge and there are clearly other, shall we call them ‘forces’ (I don’t really know what else to call them) who make decisions and presumably sign off American imagery, taken by American photographers, of American tracks, horses and jockeys, to promote South African racing.
Isn’t the point of marketing telling people who we are and what we do? If we can’t even admit to something as basic as who our marketing team is, then is it really possible to achieve any of the other lofty aspirations? We haven’t even got out of the starting gates, have we?
A Google search informed me that marketing is about developing a demand for a product and fulfilling customer needs. While it’s easy to criticise when one doesn’t have the facts, we are regularly told what the attendance is on flagship race days, but rarely, if ever, on the bread and butter meetings that fill our calendars for the other 360 days of the year. I attempted to find out and either It’s A Rush don’t know, or they aren’t telling. Without official numbers, it remains speculation of course, but attending an ordinary race meeting will generally lend credence to the belief that our fan base is not only aging, but threatening to disappear altogether.
In order to gauge whether Racing, It’s A Rush has had any impact during its tenure, I conducted an (admittedly) amateur straw poll among some young(ish) luxury lifestyle investor types. More specifically, to give them a head start, I chose as my subjects people living in the Western Cape, in close proximity to both Durbanville and Kenilworth racecourses as well as to Milnerton training centre which houses in excess of 800 horses. Somewhat surprisingly (or perhaps not so), they were unaware that racing is conducted almost every day of the year and wondered out loud why we don’t tell anyone who we are, what we do and when we do it. Good questions indeed.
Why do we use random celebrities, random racing imagery and random marketing executives, make them somehow untouchable and unquestionable and expect the racing public to swallow it day in and day out? Why are we being so squirrely about this project, who’s in charge and who’s funding it? It feels a little like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Trying to keep eyes right, while inside your head you’re screaming, ‘but this is NUTS!’
Absurdly I still don’t know who It’s A Rush is, what it does, or who to contact to obtain any of this information. However, Jenna (who isn’t in charge) has promised to get back to me in a month or two with news of some exciting plans and developments.
Watch this space. Or don’t. There’s no rush.