What I Learned from the Circus

When I was growing up, the circus coming to town was a super mega-event.  We all got to see the animals in pacing in their cages on display long before the big top opened.   And, when it was over and the show had left town, we talked about our favorite clown, trapeze performer, or lion tamer for weeks.

A little study on the promotional techniques of P.T. Barnum can reveal a lot about why the circus was such a memorable treat for small town kids.  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were early master event planners. And, their tactics can offer instruction relevant to any event or product launch!

Barnum & Bailey used advance marketing techniques (fondly labeled “ballyhoo” back then!).  Advance people went to a local town long before the arrival of the circus to attach colorful signs to telephone poles.  They provided materials on wild animals and famous clowns for school teachers to use in their lessons.  They networked with the mayor to gain support in getting local merchants to put more signs in their show windows and to offer discounts on “circus day.”  And, they worked with the local newspaper to run articles and event publicity all timed to create a snowballing buzz that  “The circus was coming.”  By the time the circus finally arrived people were so excited school was canceled so everyone could attend.

Promotion is less about blitz and more about orchestration.  Think about how it would be to dine at a fancy restaurant and you only got the main entre.  It is the aperitif followed by appetizer followed by soup or salad followed by sorbet to clear your palate that makes the presentation of the main event a dining experience, not just another meal.  On a more intimate scale, rarely do people meet and get married.  Few miss out on all the anticipation garnered through the engagement, announcement, parties, showers, and rehearsals that build up to the special ceremony.

Great service is a lot like the “circus coming to town.”  Getting customers ready, prepared and enthused is just as important as meeting their need.  Granted, one cannot over-promise and under deliver.  If the clowns had not been funny, the trapeze not particularly thrilling, or the popcorn stale, all the advance hoopla would have been wasted.  But, if you have a great product or service, thinking about how it is presented through the lens of P.T. Barnum and Company could make a big difference in the memory you create.











About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
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