Own your space – and don’t mess it up

Keeneland, Woodbine and Yonkers provide valuable positioning lessons.

by Dean Towers

I read a book about the 2016 Presidential campaign over the Christmas holiday. One section reminded me of a pretty good example about marketing.

In December of 2015, on the heels of the San Bernardino shooting (and in the heat of primary season), Donald Trump announced his controversial “Muslim ban” that angered so many, including his political opponents on the GOP side. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this wasn’t the Donald railing off-the-cuff like we’re all used to; it was more than advertised.

“There was not one person on the Trump team who was against releasing the statement,” wrote then campaign chair Cory Lewandowski. “The decision was simple – we wanted none of the other candidates to move to the right of us on immigration.”

Trump, at rallies and through his public stance, had been firm on immigration. He owned the narrative, and his policies were polling well with his targeted voters. His team didn’t want to jeopardize that standing, so they doubled down.

This, in marketing parlance, is called positioning — owning (and keeping) something in your prospect’s mind. It’s “Googling”, when you’re searching the web for something; it’s having a “Coke”, even though you’re drinking a Pepsi. And yes, it’s the phrase “immigration reform” linked to a guy in a $2,000 suit with a goofy red cap on his head.

For years, Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, KY, owned a great spot in the bettor’s mind. Their takeout rates were low, and the way management respected customers was beyond reproach. They continually ranked high on horseplayer satisfaction surveys, and their betting handle was through the roof. Keeneland was the “Customer’s Racetrack”.

Then, last fall, they increased takeout.

Immediately, their positioning took a hit. Positive comments that were once commonplace on social media turned into negative ones, handle fell; goodwill turned into badwill. After a few months of discussion they decided just last week to roll back some of the takeout increases, trying to recapture what they’ve lost.

No matter what happens in their spring meet and beyond, we can say with some certainty Keeneland broke a cardinal rule of positive positioning: Once you have it, you can’t put it at risk.

Over on the harness side, there are several examples of positive positioning happening right now as we speak.

The Woodbine & Mohawk Pick 5 is a real cracker. The bet was created just two seasons ago and with pool sizes near $100,000 per wager, it’s flying off the virtual betting shelves. It commonly delivers massive payouts, and at a takeout rate of just 15 per cent it has strong mathematical value that players are flocking to.

The WEG pick 5 is so strong that it’s blowing away the handle of its sister bet on the thoroughbred side (instituted at near the same time, but curiously at a higher takeout rate). This is no small feat because the runners command total handles near double that of the standardbreds on an average race card. There is no possible way the trotters and pacers should be more popular via this wager, but they are.

Woodbine owns the pick 5 space in harness racing. Their job now is to make it better; and most importantly, to not mess it up.

Over at Yonkers there’s something happening, too. Simulcasting various cards to France provide bettors in North America with something they crave at small ovals – pool size. Owning this space has helped put the Empire state track on the radar of some players here in North America.

Their focus on the International Trot fits nicely in this vein, as well. Yonkers is positioning itself as an American destination for European bettors. Anything that forwards this message is a positive in the positioning world.

The biggest detriment, of course, is that only win and show pools are offered overseas, not exotics. However, it has opened doors and if there is some way to allow overseas punters to bet into super or pick 5 pools in the future, the sky, in my view, is the limit for Yonkers. They could go from ho-hum to must play, virtually overnight. That’s what strong positioning can do.

In horse racing – and other businesses too – we sometimes find a lot of CEOs and CMOs who want to be everything to everyone; to promote every feature, every benefit; every nook and cranny of the business. Often times this is the wrong approach. Promoting what your track or game does best and sticking to it can yield immediate and long-term dividends through positive positioning. Woodbine and Yonkers are on the right track, and they can learn from Keeneland that staying focused on their goals should be of strategic importance. Owning a space — and keeping it – is job one.