The Secret to the Kentucky Derby’s Incredible Branding Process

Branding Process

What makes a great branding process? Is it the way a logo evolves over time, or adjustments to messaging? Maybe a combination of many things? Brand evolution is a tricky progression. A messy process can mean the downfall of a brand, but a great process can take the world by storm.

What’s the oldest U.S. brand you can think of? Without the use of Google or Siri, I bet you could come up with quite a few iconic American brands, such as Coca-Cola, Hershey, or Harley-Davidson. All three of those brands have been part of our culture for more than a century, but believe it or not, their legacies pale in comparison to that of the Kentucky Derby.

This year the Kentucky Derby will be run for the 143rd consecutive year since it started in 1875. That’s a lot of history. But the most impressive aspect is how relevant the Kentucky Derby has remained thanks to its exceptional branding process.

An Evolutionary Branding Process

Despite the fact it’s a horse race, the Kentucky Derby has become a staple of American culture, attracting more than 150,000 attendees every year, and garnering more worldwide viewers than the Superbowl. How did the Derby become such a phenomenon? Great brand evolution.

For over a century, the Kentucky Derby has continued to evolve and enhance their traditions by integrating a variety of brand modifications that has allowed them to thrill new generations of fans while improving revenue opportunities:

  • In the 1950’s the Kentucky Derby became a television spectacle. To this day, it continues to pull in millions of viewers around the world.
  • More than simply a sporting event, the Derby has become a highlight of spring fashion season, especially in the realm of women’s hats and dresses.
  • The Derby has heightened their use of celebrity promotions and endorsements moving into the 21st century, using prominent brand ambassadors, such as Kate Upton, to spread the word on social media.
  • Starting in 2004, jockeys began wearing corporate logos on their clothing, opening the doors for major brands to advertise and reach a massive global audience.

Change the Look, Keep the Branding

The Kentucky Derby lasts a whopping two minutes, but the branding process to reach those two incredible minutes starts eleven months earlier with the reveal of a logo. Every year Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of the Derby, commissions a custom logo for the next running of the race. Why? Because it helps an old brand transform into an ageless brand. It also infuses a fresh, sometimes controversial take on the Kentucky Derby legacy that increases the buzz surrounding the race.

Evolution of the Kentucky Derby logo over the past decade:

branding process

Creating a Legacy Brand

How does the Kentucky Derby manage to stay relevant in a world where consumers become bored so quickly? By creating a legacy brand. Nothing major about the actual race has changed in 143 years. It’s still a horse race, the distance of the race is still 1 ¼ miles, and it’s still the most popular horse race in the world. What has changed is the way the audience can experience the Derby.

75 years ago, you could expect to attend the Kentucky Derby and see men dressed in suits, accompanied by women in long formal dresses. No matter where you went on the track, infield, or paddock the experience was the same.

That’s no longer the case thanks to a branding evolution. At any given Derby, the infield is a wild, raucous party, filled with loud concerts, drinking parties, mud-slides, and crowds of whooping college students. The grandstand is a mixture of casually dressed individuals sipping mint juleps and sporting massive, often crazy, hats. Up in Millionaires’ Row pomp and circumstance reign supreme, along with a constant stream of wine, champagne, and high fashion. The list goes on. Each corner of the racetrack provides its own Kentucky Derby cultural experience.

Despite the polar opposites in potential Derby experiences, everything works together, because at the end of the day everyone is there for the same reason: to watch the greatest horse racing in the world. The opportunity to win a little money doesn’t hurt either.

Becoming a Tradition

There’s a distinct brand persona to the Kentucky Derby brand. It’s fashionable, it’s exciting, it’s social, and it’s world-class. Brands that can create a stellar persona will be able to create a cohesive experience that shows off the best aspects of their personality. Since 1875, the Derby’s extensive branding process has helped define their target audience. Their potential markets are wide and varied, but that hasn’t stopped them from successfully reaching a massive audience throughout the world. This, in turn, has allowed them to situate their brand as an American icon and tradition.

Becoming a tradition is the dream of every brand. The Kentucky Derby is much more than simply a great sporting event; it’s an American experience, rich in history, folklore, and culture.


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