Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Making a statement at the Melbourne Cup

The Melbourne Cup. It’s the race that stops the nation. Celebrated by Australians both young and old, the Cup is as a big a part of Aussie culture as Vegemite and Pavlova at Christmas. Although it’s come under criticism for many reasons in recent years, it still remains a huge opportunity for big brands and small businesses alike, to tap into the race-time celebrations with marketing and promotions.

If you aren’t an Aussie, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. It’s just a race, right? Wrong! The Melbourne Cup is traditionally the one day of the year where employers actively encourage their employees to excessively drink and get dressed up to the nines. Even in schools, teachers enlighten children as young as three years old how to gamble, by betting on horses to win icy poles. In my school, I remember letters going home asking parents to allow their children to come to class with $2 to participate in sweepstakes. Those were certainly different days...

There are a lot of mixed feelings surrounding the Melbourne Cup Day, but for the most part it’s seen as being just a bit of harmless fun. Every single business in the country takes part in the promotions that target customers who’ll be entertaining, as well as guests bringing something to a friend’s or workplace’s event. It’s an opportunity for everyone to get involved including fashion retailers, hairdressers, barbers and beauty salons, restaurants, pubs and bars, cafes, patisseries and caterers, bottle shops, pharmacies, dry cleaners, supermarkets, delis and even grocery stores.

Welcome to an era of everyday luxury.

Why am I talking about the Melbourne Cup? From a marketing perspective, the Cup is an interesting choice for brands, especially those sponsoring marquees in the Birdcage. For those who have been living under a rock, or are from another part of the world, let me explain that the Birdcage is the ultimate luxury experience, available to an exclusive audience. Tickets cost around $2K and unless you are on the list, there is no way you are getting in.

Earlier in the semester, in Innovative Marketing Strategies, Margaret highlighted the importance of having a strategy when selecting partnerships sponsorships and influencers and ensuring that they share the same values and essence of a brand. So cashing in on the celebrations may not be the right move for everyone, but for premium brands like Mumm, the Melbourne Cup is an attractive event.

Image source: Financial Review

According to the Financial Review, ‘The Birdcage is considered a sort of barometer of how well corporate Australia is travelling. Although this year's 28 marquees is down from 34 in 2009 and 53 in 2007, the marquees have become multi-storey and grander than ever in an ever increasing art of one-upmanship.’

Take for example the 59-foot yacht at the Melbourne Cup Birdcage. What does this say about the Mumm brand? A few words come to my mind, but I will let you make up your own minds.

Image Source: SMH. Elyse Taylor in the Lexus Design Pavilion in the Birdcage. Photo: Karon Photography

To Bryan Fry, the managing director of Pernod Ricard Australia, the millions spent by the 28 brands in the birdcage including Emirates, Lion Nathan, Sensis, Tabcorp, Myer, Kennedy, Lavazza and Lexus might appear excessive but there is a marketing strategy at play. Signing up high-profile influencers like celebrities, politicians and CEOs are also part of the plan.

Fry talks about his experience in the luxury space to the Financial Review. According to Fry, Australians are eating and drinking better. They are looking for more experiences, and are willing to spend more for special events.

"There has been a real premiumisation in terms of beer, wine and food," Fry says.

"When I left (Australia), champagne was quite expensive and considered rarefied air. Now you have more people enjoying it more regularly. It is still premium, but it's a taste of everyday luxury."

Everyday luxury? That sounds like an oxymoron if I ever heard one. In fact I’m seriously confused. As someone who is serious about fine dining, wine and the occasional luxury purchase, Mumm’s choice to ‘make a statement’ at the Melbourne Cup kind of puts me seriously at odds with the brand.

Some say exclusive, others say excessive.

The excessive displays that can be seen at The Birdcage weren’t always this way. In 1986 the first corporate marquees were established and for a decade it remained an exclusive event. Apparently, less was once more, when it came to entertaining in The Birdcage. Now it’s a circus display of bourgeoisie mixing with cashed-up bogans. The Sydney Morning Herald accurately puts it as ‘the place to be- to see this decadent scene while being seen.’

Image source: SMH. Last year’s Mumm marquee incorporated a swimming pool. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Deeta Colvin, a long-time premium brand strategist, who organised marquees at the event for 12 years spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald of how things have changed since setting up for, Louis Vuitton back in the day.

"Single-storey, fresh flowers, antique furniture," she says. "Beautiful bar, great food. Simple, elegant – like a very upmarket picnic races. The guest list went from the PM to the top CEOs and chairmen, and our French visitors. It was the AAA-list – a very sought-after ticket."

"We set the scene. Little did we know what would happen," she said. "They jammed marquee on top of marquee. You don't even see a blade of grass anymore."

"We had a fantastic decade," says Colvin, "but the dynamic and target audience totally changed. For our clients, we felt, sadly, it was time to go. For our last one we just served Krug and caviar on the lawn, then we left."

When you consider the expense of an investment in a marquee, it’s important to consider whether it is indeed the right strategy for your brand. In 2011 Emirates reportedly spent roughly $1500 per guest, totally around $1.5 million. To get a marquee on the front row, a brand practically sponsors a race.

It’s a big risk when you consider all of the potential PR catastrophes that might occur which could potentially damage a brand sponsoring the event.

Public opinion of the event is falling.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has some issues with the event. In the article, Melbourne Cup: Here's what you don't like about the race that stops the nation, the ABC asked punters at the races what their thoughts were on the event.

Image Source: ABC. Everyday luxury at the Melbourne Cup

For some it highlighted everything that was wrong with humanity:

"I worked for a few years as a bar attendant within the corporate 'birdcage' [which] represents all the most noxious parts of colonial, consumerist, corporate, misogynist and small-minded Australian culture. If an alien came to Melbourne and wanted to understand the where we need help as a culture, I would take them to the Melbourne Cup. Excessive consumption. Sexist beauty standards and rigidly policed gender boundaries. Class divide and corporate culture. Binge drinking. Animal abuse and exploitation. Sexual harassment. Anti-intellectualism and attention-seeking. Littering and total disregard for the environment. And I haven't even mentioned the gambling yet." — Jodie K
Others just didn’t see the point:

"It all seems to be a money grabbing scheme to the detriment of the horses and the consumers." — Hannah L-S

Personally, I have mixed feelings. And I’m speaking for myself here. After living in Paris for many years and attending the races at Longchamps, I really noticed the difference in approach to race day in Australia, I really think that the excessively vulgar displays hurt certain luxury more than help them. Everyday luxury? I’m sorry, but that just really isn’t for me.

Alyce Brierley
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School

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