In the midst of all the “BREAKING NEWS” that came at us like a firehose last week, you may have missed one of the most important media and entertainment stories of the year.
After a long, successful 146 year run, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its final show yesterday. I’m betting that most of you reading this blog have been a happy attendee of that circus at one time or another. Readers of a certain age have no doubt taken their kids or even their grandkids to witness “The Greatest Show On Earth.”
But like so many other traditional entertainment products, the circus did not keep up with new technology or the changing mindset of the consumer. And along the way, Ringling Brothers became financially unsustainable. As today’s savvy media executives might observe, the circus no longer scaled. And along with protests that haunted the circus vertical, starting with the elephants, the circus simply couldn’t survive in the 21st century.
Yet, the problems besetting Ringling Brothers (and other circuses) went well beyond PETA protests. The high cost of travel – by rail – and the sheer number of people, animals, and equipment that needed to be moved from town to town made the circus model unsustainable.
For older Americans reading the news about the demise of Ringling Brothers, the death of the traditional circus seems unthinkable. In spite of the costs and the problems, millions of people paid for an afternoon under the big top every year. Yet, financial realities have come home to roost, and the circus has finally left town after nearly a century and a half of existence as part of the American entertainment fabric.
And at the same time the traditional circus fell on hard times, a different type of entertainment model was emerging, born with some of the same DNA. Cirque du Soleil, started in Quebec in 1984, by reimagining the old school circus. Using data and new thinking that not only generated massive profits, Cirque has created a theatrical version of the traditional circus – and a highly successful one at that.
When you consider how Cirque du Soleil has pulled it off, it’s an allegory for how traditional entertainment verticals – like newspapers, radio, television, and direct mail – might rethink their “givens,” and develop smart alternatives that are more in-line with the changing consumer mindset. Or become Ringling Brothers.
In Cirque du Soleil’s case, they utilize some of the same basic skills and thrills we enjoyed all those years from Ringling Brothers – acrobats, costumes, lighting, music. But by blowing up the circus model and finding different ways to present a show that elicits the same “oohs and aahs,” they’ve created a franchise as powerful as the circus was more than a century ago.
A few facts about Cirque du Soleil that illustrate the point:
- They have a mission. While barely more than 30 years old, the purpose of Cirque du Soleil “is to invoke the imagination, provoke the sense and evoke the emotions of people around the world.” If Ringling Brothers had a positioning statement, it might have read pretty much the very same way.
- The shows are anchored to theaters and casinos. And that eliminates the impossibly high cost and challenging logistics of moving a highly complex show from city to city, week after week. Cirque du Soleil is the destination, just like Broadway shows. We travel to it, rather that it traveling to us.
- The brand is associated with both quality and unpredictability. Whatever Cirque show you see, it is always stunningly produced, and different from the one you saw last year. And the attendant marketing is often as breathtaking as the show itself.
- It is mass appeal. Because music is at the core of Cirque du Soleil shows, their magic transcends language barriers, making these performances as popular around the world as they are in North America.
- They take risks. As the CMO of Xerox, Christa Carone, pointed out in a Forbes story, the CdS team isn’t afraid to roll the dice. And not everything has worked, including Michael Jackson’s “Immortal,” and in ill-fated “Banana Shpeel” that closed after only six weeks in New York City. But risk is part of the DNA of Cirque, and it has almost always paid off.
- They have rate integrity. A Cirque du Soleil seat is not cheap, often costing more than $200 per person. But with those prices come high expectations, and these shows always deliver. As Carone notes, they are “consistently remarkable.”
- Employees have input. In a LinkedIn story by Kelly Luo, she explains how CdS has created an annual workshop where 5,000 employees from around the globe can present their ideas and concepts. Instead of the same thing year in and year out, Cirque always delights with new twists and turns, often driven by their own workforce.
- They use data to evaluate performers. CdS has a database that contains metrics on each talent member’s assets and liabilities. When they’re staging a new show, they use this data to build a cast that utilizes the necessary skill sets. It is all about talent, so connecting the right performers to specific shows goes a long way toward optimizing their success.
- Their CEO is a former performer. Guy Laliberté, founder of CdS and now its boss, knows precisely how to stage a show and cast it. As someone who spent years on stage, he has first-hand knowledge about managing talent and maximizing Cirque shows. He has both empathy for his talent, but also knows how to push them to get even more.
- There are no animals. Cirque has created a unique market space, rather than trying to design a better circus. There’s a “Blue Ocean Strategy” angle here that brands like Spotify are trying to perfect. CdS is circus-like, but it’s also a whole different thing based on a different financial model. It has carved out its own entertainment niche.
Interestingly, many digital brands have tried to create a better form of radio – rather than inventing something totally different. SiriusXM, Pandora, and Spotify are all examples of radio-type brands that use different models – playlists, algorithms, subscription/commercial-free – in order to differentiate themselves from radio.
Yet, radio still has the larger audience. That begs the question of whether a vertical like broadcast radio couldn’t take a Cirque du Solei approach to reinventing its model by blowing up some of the conventional wisdom and “givens” that have been common to the business for decades and decades. Just like Ringling Brothers.
Like railway transportation and elephants, radio has its own “givens” – a business model that has not radically changed a whole lot over the years, whether it has to do with talent, marketing, or sales.
And yet, rethinking those “we’ve always done it this way” rules of radio might lead to changes that could reinvigorate a business, rather than see it eventually replaced by new media entertainment and information models.
The circus has left town, and many tears have been shed.
It is a sad set of circumstances for the thousands of employees and performers who enjoyed wonderful careers under the big top, not to mention the millions of fans who still cherish the family experience.
There’s no reason why radio should ever have to follow that same path.
We don’t need the elephants and trains to be successful.
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