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10 Lessons Marketers Can Learn from the Circus

By Jennifer Polk | January 02, 2018 | 2 Comments


Over the holidays, my family and I saw The Greatest Showman, the story of the legendary P.T. Barnum, the founding of what would become Barnum & Bailey’s circus—which most would consider the greatest show on earth—and perhaps the beginning of show business as we now know it. In this harrowing tale you can see the parallels between the difficulties that Barnum faced and the challenges confronting today’s marketing leaders.

What can marketers learn from the circus?

Barnum overcame countless obstacles to realize a vision that most around him held in disbelief. He aspired to bring joy to audiences, even though he personally struggled with feelings of inferiority and lacked acceptance in the upper echelons of society. That was tall order. But it’s not unlike the aspiration of marketing leaders. Your organization may doubt your ability and the impact of marketing on business transformation and financial results. You may lack a seat at the table when it comes to setting strategy.

Nevertheless, CMO aspire to understand and exceed their customers’ expectations, while delivering company growth, at a time when customer expectations are rising and marketing budgets are falling—a tall order indeed. But, in this film I found ten lessons marketing leaders can learn from P.T. Barnum, his indomitable hope and commitment to his grand vision and the way he inspired a sense of determination in those around him.

  1. Think big.

    Barnum wanted to bring smiles to the faces of others, which led to the founding of Barnum’s American Museum. But, as he learned what worked and what didn’t, he allowed his original plan to change. Marketers, cast a vision that allows for expansion, evolution and reinvention based on key insight and innovation.

  2. Know your customer.

    Barnum knew people were attracted to the bizarre and macabre, and he used this insight to turn his vision into a strategic plan for Barnum’s American Museum. He kept this insight in mind as he sourced talent and positioned his brand.

  3. Keep innovating.

    Selling only three tickets to his first show—and those to his wife and children—Barnum listened to his daughters’ ideas for how to improve the museum. He later took input from critics. Where do you source ideas? How effectively do you listen to, internalize and act upon input from others, like customers and partners?

  4. Be different.

    The way in which Barnum sought out cast-offs from society and brought them together set his show apart from anything audiences had ever seen before. He created something unique. Are you building brand differentiation or bench-marking mediocrity?

  5. Seek the right partners.

    P.T. Barnum saw an opportunity to advance, expand and reach new audiences with the help of an unusual partner. But doing so required him to find the win-win and perfect his pitch. How well does your brand identify and rely on partners to do what you can’t do alone?

  6. Strive for smart growth.

    Like many brands, Barnum was distracted by the prospect of expansion, failing to recognize the impact on the existing business, strain to his finances or talent and skills it would require of him. Growth is good, but consider whether a new venture is a departure from core brand values and how to grow while maintaining the core business.

  7. Cultivate top talent.

    While Barnum was distracted by growth opportunities, his team of talented performers felt left out. He had neglected to appropriately engage them in his new venture or to remind them of their value to organization.  But he soon realized their talent was key to his success. How are you engaging top marketing talent?

  8. Beware of disruptors.

    Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground at the hand of disruptors, literally. He underestimated the risk they posed. Who threatens to disrupt your business? While you’re busy executing your current strategy, how is the business environment and competitive landscape changing around you? How do you adapt to that change?

  9. Throw out the playbook.

    When Barnum’s museum burned to the ground and no bank would finance another, he threw out the idea of a permanent building in favor of a big tent, reinventing his business model and laying the groundwork for more than a century of success. Know when to set aside conventional wisdom and go in a different direction.

  10. Get back up.

    P.T. Barnum was knocked down more often then was depicted in this film, yet he continued to get back up. Don’t be too quick to give up on a new technique or innovative idea. Assess each venture for its success and failures—you’ll often find both. Consider how to keep what worked and fix what was broken. Then, try again.

Perhaps you’re setting a marketing vision for the year ahead, looking for an emerging trend that can deliver differentiation or considering a new technique to gain a competitive edge. Apply these lessons to advance your approach or avoid common pitfalls.

Comments are closed


  • Lisa says:

    Love It!