Off The Pace: Five brands to inspire the horse racing industry

As Einstein so eloquently said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

In order to gain outside perspective on horse racing’s perception and relevance challenges, I’ve been researching other brands faced with similar challenges that are addressing their issues head on and benefiting from it.

In this blog, we’ll go through how five major organisations have initiated a range of specific ‘change’ campaigns that offer valuable lessons for horse racing.

Here are three things I learned from my research:



Firstly, the horse racing industry is not alone. It’s hard to believe that only ten years ago organisations still controlled the majority of information disseminated to the public. But that’s now history. The surge in social network sites, blogs, video-sharing services, user-driven content, and feedback platforms have shifted the power and credibility of voice to individuals. The organisations  becoming victors, not victims, in this time of change are those who see an opportunity and change their voice too.

Secondly, ‘it’s not the problem that’s the problem, it’s our attitude to the problem that’s the problem’ (stolen from Captain Jack Sparrow). It’s often a brand’s failure to address perception issues that sparks and perpetuates the outrage. Every company and industry has issues that critics will attack them for, but fixing misconceptions and showing that there are processes in place to address pending issues will go a long way to improve overall brand perception.

Thirdly, change in perception and behaviour is possible. Market research will reveal key mental barriers that influence attitudes and behaviour. By using these insights to create a creative and relatable campaign, effective marketing can achieve unprecedented levels of cut-through. It requires innovation, a strategic plan and significant investment, but the results speak for themselves.

Nike: From sweatshops to leaders in sustainability

Two decades ago, Nike came under major fire for abusive labour practices.

The public was shocked by reports of Indonesian Nike workers earning as little as 14 cents an hour and disturbing allegations of abuse. Customers staged public protests at the Olympics and at Nike stores. People began boycotting the brand in droves. The disastrous impact of a very negative perception resulted in a massive decline in sales.

“The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” CEO and founder Phil Knight said in a public address at the time. “I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”

The Nike scandal was brought to media attention after journalist Jeff Ballinger published an article that went viral. This is similar to the 2016 New South Wales greyhound racing scandal, initially broken by television show Four Corners and then flamed through social media until the State Government launched an investigation.

“The company took a very defensive approach to it for about four or five years. All that did was to fuel the campaign,” Nike’s current Sustainability Officer, Hannah Jones explained.

The key to Nike’s turnaround was being honest and transparent about the issues it faced. Nike admitted it wasn’t perfect. This gave it more credibility with consumers.

Nike began publicly documenting its responsibility and progress on improving factory conditions as a promise to be transparent. The company prioritised sustainability as a key business objective stating “our moonshot ambition is to double business while halving environmental impact.”

The brand is still not perfect; the quest for improvement is never complete. But today, Nike is an industry leader in corporate social responsibility practices, a position regarded as one of its greatest competitive advantages.

Check out their social responsibilty and innovation website here

McDonald’s Campaign: Our Food. Your Questions.

For years, McDonald’s had lower food-quality perception scores than its main rivals, and rumours about food quality and safety dogged the brand.

Here, Todd Wheatland, Head of Global Strategy for content marketing company King Content, explains how McDonald’s took the power of transparent communication to the extreme.

“Five years ago, a transparency campaign started at McDonald’s Canada seeking to address negative misconceptions and myths surrounding its food, preparation methods, packaging and product launches. McDonald’s invited consumers to ask anything they wanted, and vowed to give them full and speedy replies.



“Our Food. Your Questions was ground-breaking in that it sought to tackle these stories head-on to fight false perceptions online – specifically on social media, where rumours were the loudest.

“The campaign was so successful it was subsequently launched into other markets including Australia, with tens of thousands of unique questions answered globally.

“One of the most powerful things observed was that the questions themselves were a source of intelligence. If people were questioning whether 100% beef was used in burgers, that was a good sign that content on specific farms and farmers should be created too.

The resulting impact on how people perceived McDonald’s was remarkable, if we just look at the Canadian results:

+46% – in the statement ‘A company I trust’

+61% – in the statement ‘Good food quality’

+73% – in the statement ‘Good quality ingredients’

+48% – in the statement ‘Food I feel good about eating’

Watch the case study video:


“Core to the campaign’s success was that there was no shying away from the tough questions. It tapped into the demand for authenticity from consumers, which has been a major change in the era of social media usage.”


Nestlé Campaign: Henri@Nestlé

Todd takes us through another major campaign King Content’s global offices have been associated with, for food giant Nestlé.

While this campaign is still in its infancy, Todd explained that Nestlé has been bashed for decades on issues as diverse as powdered milk programs in Africa, the global glut of plastic bottles, and producing tens of billions of aluminum coffee pods each year that are too small for regular council recycling programs.

“Historically, publicly listed companies have addressed these types of issues through public relations and lobbying efforts. In a social media environment, however, no amount of earnest official statements will sway those on the attack, or those that they are seeking to influence,” Todd continues.


“Henri@Nestlé is a platform to seek out potential partners for Nestlé to work with to solve some of these huge issues. It is setting up a pathway for the ongoing creation of authentic stories, as the company seeks to help shape a better future.

“And equally importantly, it’s a digital hub where stories can be accessed by Nestlé’s hundreds of thousands of employees.

“They can share these into social media discussions to counter alternate viewpoints. It is this focus on storytelling, hosted in a central environment that empowers fans and employees alike to participate with confidence in taking on falsehoods online.”

Meat Livestock Australia: You’re Better on Beef

Meat Livestock Australia is an organisation established to increase demand for red meat. MLA is funded by a levy on livestock transactions, with funds split between research & development (~$95 million per annum) and marketing (~$87 million per annum).

Market research is the foundation of great marketing success. MLA’s research uncovered reasons why Australian consumers were reducing red meat consumption and determined health and nutrition were dominant factors.

Andrew Howie, Group Marketing Manager at Meat & Livestock Australia said: “So our strategy evolved to reduce those barriers – to give people the ‘permission’ they need to eat more beef.

“One in three Australian women are not getting enough iron in their diet. We set out to remind them that beef, packed full of 13 essential nutrients, is one of the best sources of iron.

“Consumer research also showed that Australians do not perceive Beef to be quick and easy to prepare. Therefore, the challenge was to demonstrate Beef’s credentials at a very practical level by reinforcing its role in the mid-week family meal.”

 MLA has a long history of partnering with key ambassadors to promote their messages through shareable content. “If you create content that people want to watch, and it’s engaging, your cost per view plummets.”

MLA’s beef campaign enlisted the services of none other than Dame Edna Everage – reaffirming that Beef is the best natural source of iron for busy women. The campaign also featured a recipe partnership with media partner Tasty – featuring “how to cook” Beef recipe videos, showing women how easy it is to use Beef to meet their iron needs.

The success? Results exceeded key targets with a lift in weekly beef servings from 1.55 to 1.75 amongst the target audience of mothers. There was also a 20% reduction in the number of mums who said they were limiting red meat consumption due to health concerns.

Ultimately, Howie concludes, campaigns must drive results. “Effectiveness is not an outcome, it is mandatory. MLA does not have big budgets. We think our way out of trouble rather than spend our way out. A core philosophy of our business is to respect where the money comes from. The farmers pay for our marketing.”

Sport England: This Girl Can

Another wildly successful behaviour change campaign is ‘This Girl Can’ by Sport England, which aimed to reduce the gender gap in sports participation. In England, 2 million fewer 14- to 40-year-old women than men play sport regularly.

The campaign is based on a powerful insight: that the fear of judgement by others is the primary barrier holding women back from playing sport.

Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England, explained to “Before we began this campaign, we looked very carefully at what women were saying about why they felt sport and exercise were not for them. Some of the issues, like time and cost, were familiar, but one of the strongest themes was a fear of judgement.”

The marketing manifesto was: “Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.”

It was real women with real fears who formed the lynchpin of the campaign. Not only did they star in the above-the-line campaign, they became grassroots heroes inspiring other women to exercise.


£10 million (~$16 million) has been invested in the campaign. This includes creative, media planning and buying, PR activity, social media management and campaign management.

As a result of the campaign, 1.6 million women have started exercising. The gender gap has narrowed – from 1.78 million to 1.73 million. The 90-second video has been watched more than 37 million times on Facebook and YouTube. The campaign has an active social-media community of 500,000 and there have been 660,000 tweets about it.

Application for horse racing

Lessons from Nike: No sport, company or industry is perfect. But the sooner a brand identifies its challenges the less likely they are to become serious problems affecting viability and profitability. Corporate social responsibility and sustainability standards are a reality of 21st century business that horse racing cannot ignore. With a clear, actionable plan and resources dedicated to action, horse racing can be proactive in dealing with issues around industry integrity, animal welfare during and post racing, and the welfare of its participants.

Racing NSW’s ground-breaking announcement last weekend that it has purchased a 2600-acre property as a facility for rehoming racehorses, a base for training staff and a shop-front for the industry, should be enthusiastically commended and replicated by the wider Australian and global thoroughbred racing industry. This is a perfect example of an organisation understanding its duty to meet social standards, and turning an industry weakness into a strength.

Lessons from McDonald’s: It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to visualise the power of a transparency campaign for the horse racing industry. Thankfully, with the introduction of full life-cycle tracking of every thoroughbred horse, we are one step closer to being able to provide this level of transparency.  Like McDonald’s, we cannot shy away from the tricky questions. When confronted by a query that could potentially expose an area of embarrassment, we will answer it and explain the milestones we are working toward to achieve a better result.

Lessons from Nestlé: The objective in a digital environment is not to shout down those who are challenging your brand. It’s to provide an alternate – and more credible – viewpoint, which can be accessed by those who are open to critical thinking. The horse racing industry can harness the power of its participants to communicate on its behalf, as an enormous network of ambassadors.

Lessons from Meat Livestock Australia: Comprehensive market research should underpin every promotional campaign. Armed with an accurate understanding of each sector of the population that the horse racing industry is failing to engage, we can determine how best to break through the barriers. Then, specific campaigns can be designed for targeted outcomes such as awareness, race attendance, wagering, ownership and fan engagement.

Lessson from Sport England: Similar to the MLA campaign, ‘This Girl Can’ was underpinned by solid market research that revealed a major barrier to behaviour. By creating engaging, shareable content the campaign reached the target market in the millions, far greater than could be achieved by a mass advertising blast or by any individual company. The content was relatable, emotional and real, so it was able to drive significant attitude and behaviour change.


 I’m excited by these examples of superbly executed campaigns because they conclusively prove that it really is possible to achieve major changes in perception and behaviour, and measurable, bottom-line results.

For the horse racing industry, it is a three-step process:

Step 1: Ensure all sectors of the industry meet modern social standards. Where they don’t, ensure a structured plan is in place to address it. This provides a foundation for transparency to rebuild trust in the industry. The content should be made available on a digital hub alongside general industry information, interactive education tools and engaging media content.

Step 2: Conduct market research to determine barriers to entry for each market sector. From this, the antidotes to change attitude and behaviour can be determined. For example, if a perceived lack of integrity is the barrier: transparency around processes is the antidote. If ignorance is the barrier: awareness is the antidote.


Step 3: Develop a multi-sector, multi-level, long-term, national positioning strategy anchored in market intelligence. It must be shareable and creative. It must be engaging, entertaining and educational. It must utilise the industry community. It must reach the ten million Australians who currently feel neutral toward the horse racing industry.


There is some urgency to this call to action: the longer we leave it, the harder our job will be. However, if we can get an organized strategy underway soon, I truly believe we can turn around public attitudes to horse racing and secure our participant base for the future.

Off The Pace: Five brands to inspire the horse racing industry