When the Lights Fade: Lessons from the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus

By: Karl R. LaPan, President and CEO, The NIIC

For many, the circus is a part of our childhood—a slice of Americana. While I always hated to go as a kid and tried hard to avoid going with my kids, the elephants, the “three rings of fun” and the cotton candy, all contributed to a quality family experience. But not all good things are meant to last unless you reimagine, reinvent and have a relentless focus on relevance (the three R’s of a robust business model). The Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus announced this month that it would deliver its final show in May, which wasn’t entirely shocking to critics or fans of the circus.

The circus’ demise was long in the making, but a failure to innovate was its ultimate downfall. In a statement, CEO Kenneth Feld said the circus “wasn’t a sustainable business model.” Despite being retooled, the Greatest Show on Earth didn’t reach modern audiences. Here’s why:

Failure to do environmental scanning & understand seismic shifts. It’s no secret that the circus has been targeted by animal rights activists. There was a call for years to retire elephants from the show for the sake of humaneness. Instead of listening to their fan base, the circus waited until 2015 to act. It was a case of too little, too late. The circus simply didn’t see or believe the shifts in societal values. Innovative companies are constantly doing environmental scanning and reading the “tea leaves” to know their customer and validate their wants and needs.

Failure to pass on the torch. The founder, P.T. Barnum was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the experience we know as the contemporary circus. What his successors failed to do is re-imagine that magic to further his legacy while staying relevant. A company is more than the qualities or values of his founder. Successful companies have plans in place to move forward while still honoring their roots. If you haven’t read the principles in the best-selling book Blue Ocean Strategy, you should revisit them.

Failure to think creatively. Feld saw the writing on the wall and attempted to add some fresh air to the show, with a storyline, ice, and pyrotechnics. The experience, by and large, felt inauthentic and no longer resembled the Greatest Show on Earth. The lesson here is that brands can still maintain their integrity while innovating. Take Starbucks, for example, which started as a single location and has grown to more than 24,000 locations worldwide. Despite facing some challenges in the way of a faded consumer brand, the company has expanded from selling just coffee to sandwiches, snacks, sweets—and even alcohol at some company owned US stores (Note: They are discontinuing this practice because of inconsistencies with their brand promise and business model; this can only be learned through experimentation and iteration.) Yet the essential Starbucks third place experience is consistent from location to location.

It’s an end of an era for sure.

Stop clowning around – Don’t find yourself repeating the mistakes of the circus. Now might be the right time to reach out to The NIIC to fine-tune and polish up your business model. Call us at 260-407-6442, meet with one of our business coaches at no-charge.


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