One of the nation’s biggest spirits distributors intends to use the Kentucky Derby to advertise one of its popular bourbons without running much traditional advertising at all.
Rather than bombard viewers of NBC’s five-hour Saturday telecast of the famous horse race with traditional commercials, Brown-Forman intends to help the network fill time with in-show vignettes centered around its Woodford Reserve bourbon.
“Commercials are fine. When they are done right, they can get your message across,” says Mark Bacon, senior vice president and global brand director for Woodford Reserve. “When you have the ability to tell a story, I think you can get a deeper connection with folks.”
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Many sports executives may look at Brown-Forman’s promotional work this weekend as part of the next chapter in mixing commercials with game-day content. With the National Football League continuing to examine how ads affect the way viewers interpret the pace of play, several TV-network sports units are giving new consideration to running “features” about game elements and then weaving sponsors into the mix. Just last week, ESPN crafted a quick and humorous 15-second in-show ad for Bud Light during its broadcast of the NFL Draft. The ad tried to portray Anheuser-Busch Bud Knight as a first-round pick.
“It doesn’t work unless it really fits in the content, and the brand and the sport have to align properly, but absolutely, it’s where I think everyone wants to go,” says Trish Frohman, executive vice president of sponsorship and strategy at NBC Sports Group.
NBC Sports ad-sales executives approached Brown-Forman after Woodford Reserve was named presenting sponsor of the Derby in the fall of 2017 as part of a new five-year deal with Churchill Downs, the race’s longtime roost. The intent, says Frohman, was to see if the beverage marketer would have interest in devising a larger promotional partnership. The two sides struck what is being billed as a seven-figure deal.
Viewers this weekend will see a feature on Derby Opening Night featuring Kentucky-born actress Jennifer Lawrence; Derby predictions and stories by PGA Tour champion and Louisville native Justin Thomas; a feature story on an unlikely artist who worked in the Woodford Reserve cafeteria and ultimately created its unique Kentucky Derby bottle; a segment on how to make a $2,500 Mint Julep with Master Distiller Chris Morris; a “Toast to the Derby” hosted by Elizabeth McCall, one of the youngest female distillers in the U.S., and a feature on the new Double Bourbon Bet option at the wagering window at Churchill Downs.
NBC Sports is well known for the features it crafts on Olympic athletes and football stars. Now it’s putting some of that acumen to work on behalf of a sponsor. “We are both interested in providing content for viewers as well as those who are on the track,” says Brown-Forman’s Bacon.
The belief is that people tuning in for the race won’t mind being served content that gives them a better understanding of the region in which it is held. And with bourbon production increasing to meet a rise in consumption of the American spirit – the number of Kentucky distilleries grew from 19 in 2009 to 31 in 2013 to 52 in 2016, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Assocation – Brown-Forman feels viewers will take an interest in stories that offer some behind-the-scenes information about how it’s made and the culture around it.
“This is not anything staged, just folks having a good time at the distillery,” notes Bacon. Viewers will see plenty of graphics and logos detailing the Woodford Reserve sponsorship.
NBC Sports’ bourbon alliance will have a spillover effect. Woodford Reserve will also help sponsor golf as well as the NBCSN English Premier League soccer show “Men in Blazers.”