Saddle up, squad: How the Kentucky Derby gallops to Gen Z hearts

The classic race is updating itself for a new generation.

The Kentucky Derby appeals to Gen Z

Karen Freberg is a professor of strategic communications at the University of Louisville. 

Everyone wants to target Gen Z when it comes to promotions, marketing, PR and experiences. From consumer brands to sporting events, everyone wants to capture the most valuable asset this audience has to offer: their attention.

The Kentucky Derby is known for its history and tradition of horse racing, fashion and entertainment sporting experiences that have made it a bucket list item for 150 years. Their legacy for being a global premier sporting event has been established.



However, The Kentucky Derby has solidified itself as a brand that has turned tradition into transformation to capture the attention of Gen Z and Gen Alpha. How did the team from the Kentucky Derby do this and what lessons can PR professionals garner from KYD 150?

  • Fully embracing the creator culture on and offline. Celebrities are part of what makes the Kentucky Derby iconic. However, bringing together celebrities – creators, entertainers (Jimmy Fallon and Jack Harlow), sports icons (Travis Kelce),and more –helps create content across social media channels. This has played a key role in the Derby’s overall strategy, especially on TikTok and Instagram. Content ranged from high-resolution videos and Reels to tiny mic interviews with attendees and celebrities, to even AI-generated photos showcasing the new age of content creation, which provided a 360-degree perspective of the event beyond the race trackto grab Gen Z’s attention.
  • Creating new partnerships geared towards experiential marketing for Gen Z. There were many new partnerships that were announced with brands for the KYD 150 that were marketed to all audiences, but were geared towards the younger audience. Some new partnerships that were brought in included PopCorners (a speakeasy activation), Boot Barn (customizable cowboy hats), Sports Illustrated (Club SI), and fashion collaborations with brands such as Aviator Nation and Fanatics. Fashion ideas were also showcased in their partnership with Pinterest as well, a platform that garners both high use and respect for Gen Z.
  • Bringing TikTok FYP to RLP (Real Life Page). Churchill Downs partnered with Unwell, which oversees the podcasts of Alexandra Cooper (Call Her Daddy) and Alix Earle (Hot Mess). The Kentucky Derby featured a new activation in the infield at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby 150 to feature two modern day media trailblazers to engage with the Kentucky Derby’s female fan base. Fans at the activation were able to ask questions of the podcast hosts and interact with them. Unwell had a booth at Churchill Downs, featuring personalized merch and a glambot to create experiences for Gen Z to remember their time at the iconic racetrack with Alex and Alix. Both hosts held their own events at Jefferson Events for Thurby and Oaks before the Kentucky Derby.
  • Partnering with Gen Z and Gen Alpha to co-create engaged learning experiences. Churchill Downs and the KYD team integrated students in their events and marketing activities. From recruiting FFA students to help with floral arrangements at the Taste of Derby to Sullivan Culinary students helping celebrity chefs serve luxury meals to attendees, to University of Louisville students assisting with social media and event planning aspects of the races. All these students will be able to add this experience to their portfolios, which will make them marketable candidates for future employment.

The Kentucky Derby is the place in making legends on the racetrack, but this year’s event was a true global masterclass for an iconic event by turning legacy into legendary through creative marketing and promotional partnerships, experiential experiences, and innovative content strategies in attracting the next generation of fans.


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