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MUMBAI: It’s time to dolly up, as the crme de la crme of society converges to indulge in their passion for horses and racing at the Mahalakhsmi Race Course here in Mumbai for the Poonawalla Million starting tomorrow.

But it’s not only the horses that are on for a ride here, as more brands are getting involved with the royal sport. Old timers like McDowell’s and newbie’s like Yes Bank and Johnnie Walker are all in the running, vying to capture the hearts and purses of this set.

Though brands like McDowell’s have been involved with the races for the last twenty five years, in the past few years many others have jumped in. “It’s a constant effort on our part to get more brands and companies involved; with each successful event it gets bigger,” states Vivek Jain, chairman of Stewards, and the head of the club’s marketing group.

This year’s Derby day saw first timers like Diageo and Yes Bank saddle up for branding efforts. “Brands get a lot of visibility locally, at the race course, and nationally, since the races are telecast across India”, adds Jain. For the Poonawalla Million Derby, new sponsors include Ma Passion Artefacts Company, Skoda dealers, SBI.

Sponsorship at the races occurs in several ways. McDowell’s sponsors the McDowell’s Derby, where the majority of its Rs. 65 lakh sponsorship goes towards prize money, says Jain.

A newer brand like Yes Bank was co sponsor, hosting the Yes Bank Trophy race and a contest to win Mont Blanc pens. Brands also have tables and displays where people can interact with their products, while others choose to serve drinks and foods associated with their brand.

The race for new brands and sponsors for coming seasons is increasing, with Diageo’s Johnnie Walker vying for the prestigious sponsor of the Derby, and other brands vying for top slots on other classic races.

Whipping up the cash

So, what is it about the races that’s bringing in the crowds, and now the moolah from the brands?

“There is a certain aura about the race course which spells elite: everyone wants to belong to it, therefore it becomes something aspirational for brands,” states Manish Porwal, managing director, Starcom India West and South.

While the audience begins to associate the sponsor brands as aspirational, other brands outside the race course want to join in the brigade. “Brands have a spillover association as well, where when they are talked about in connection with the races in the media, other companies want to be associated with the same”, says Porwal.

Several new brands are already in the running to sponsor the 2008 racing season. “Branding at the race course is inexpensive, and companies are able to entertain clients in a unique environment, different from the usual five star ball rooms,” says Jain.

For Yes Bank, this is the perfect platform to showcase its retail and wealth management business. “Yes Bank is able to engage with high net worth individuals at an informal level about our products: a target group whose attention,
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due to media fragmentation, is hard to get in a focused way,” states Isaac Jacob, chief marketing officer country head customer experience, Yes Bank.

Jacob adds they are looking to build unique event properties for future races. Other sponsors like Deutsche Bank held a dinner for their high networth clients, while Nitco Tiles has a party for 2,000 guests on the race course premises. Ritzy brands like Mercedes, Bvlgari, Johnnie Walker etc are leveraging this PR opportunity.

Johnnie Walker is involved not just with the races, but also with the sport of polo. “These tie ups are about showcasing the sub brands of Johnnie Walker like Gold Label” states Santosh Kanekar, marketing head, Diageo.

The aim here is to connect the brands with a property that has the same connotations as the brand values: “Both racing and polo are about luxury, class, indulgence, festivity and celebration: all the values that Johnnie Walker and its sub brands stand for.”

The connection between the brand and its consumer becomes a lot deeper since Johnnie Walker doesn’t only become a sponsor of an existing event, but rather creates a special event around its brand. The Haig Gold Label race day or the multi country Johnnie Walker polo match become properties connected solely with the Diageo brands.

For co sponsors, the rewards are no less: Jacob states that their association with the races gave them great opportunity to engage existing and potential clients for Yes Bank. Porwal explains that geographic localisation and audience segmentation in events like this help brands interact directly with their target. “One can invade mind and heart space at the same time, creating a deep connect without much work.”

The attributes that a brand wants to highlight, along with the interactivity factor help to attract consumer attention at an event. While McDowell’s focused more on the entertainment aspect with dancers and stilt walkers, Casino Goa had faux roulette tables where you could play and win trips to Goa!

Porwal explains that these are the two ways by which brands interact, becoming the “enablers and the celebrators: while a newer brand will enable the audience, helping them understand the sport, a more iconic brand will encourage the consumer to compete, and celebrate with them.”

Kanekar adds, “It is about bringing together the emotional value of the event with the physical experience of the brand.” While Johnnie Walker brought in the McClaren car, and Yes Bank offered Mont Blanc’s, one could win a Bvulgari or a Mercedes if they guessed winners of the races correctly.

This connects brand, consumer and sport: “Creating excitement like this is key for creating brand connect and recall,” states Porwal.

Finally, this kind of sponsorship works not only for brands, but also for the race course. “We want racing to grow and give it a credibility boost, removing the negative stigma that has been attached to it due to gambling etc,” states Jain. And when names like Johnnie Walker, McDowell’s, Yes Bank join,
climb mt blanc Derby of the brands races ahead
the image of the sport is boosted.