Cirque du Soleil marketing chief: Digital will help us make customer experiences more intimate

VP of sales and marketing for the circus brand's resident shows division shares how storytelling lies at the heart of her digital strategy

Alma Derricks, Cirque du Soleil
Alma Derricks, Cirque du Soleil

The most radical thing Cirque du Soleil can do when it comes to digitising the consumer experience of its brand is to become more intimate, its marketing leader claims.

Alma Derricks took over as the circus organisation’s VP of sales and marketing for its resident shows division in Las Vegas last July, just after the business transferred to new owners, TPG. Since then, and in the same vein as the wider transformation being experienced by the group, she has set out to look at every aspect of its approach to consumer engagement in order to tell the Cirque story better.

“For me, it’s an inflexion point – when you have new ownership and change, it’s an opportunity to re-ask all the questions as everything is back on the table,” she said during a presentation at the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit.

“For example, our brand is incredibly strong on stage. Where we are challenged is what happens beyond the footlights - how do we talk to you and come down literally from the heights and interact with you.”

According to Derricks, leading with customer experience doesn’t just mean experiencing what’s on stage, it’s about bringing audiences closer by taking them behind the curtain to understand the bigger story behind the show.

“What we’re hearing from fans and audiences is that they want to know more about the person behind the grease paint,” she said. “We are turning the volume down, having small conversations and telling new stories. This is new territory for us, as we’ve never presented ourselves that way before.”

To bring people closer, Derricks is turning to both digital and mobile channels as well as analogue experiences. One recent physical offering led by marketing is ‘Cirqueshops’, or workshops that break down and teach elements of the shows, from music to design, dance, wardrobe and makeup. Another initiative is Spark sessions, which allow corporate teams to participate in the physical experience of Cirque du Soleil.

“All of this is about inviting audiences in and accessing us in a different way,” Derricks said.

Derricks spoke exclusively to CMO about her wider marketing strategy and what she’s doing to ensure Cirque is a customer experience-led organisation.

What was the brief and remit for you coming into the role?

One of the first things was about the culture of the team, unifying the team and getting them back.

The very first thing I said to the team was this is not a glass half empty situation. This brand is incredibly resilient, and what you deliver is remarkable. I don’t want any of you to take TPG or my questions wrong in any way, we’re just trying to take this to the next level and ask questions we put on the shelf.

For example, in Las Vegas, there’s a set canon of marketing techniques you use – videos at the airport, baggage claim, taxi toppers and building wraps. I want to ask the question: How much of that still matters? If we didn’t have taxi toppers and redirected that money to digital, could we do that? Or is this canon immutable?

Cirque is unconventional in terms of its content. How you balance the conventional with the unconventional in your marketing strategy?

It’s not that we’re changing or doing something devastatingly different with our marketing techniques – in fact we’re playing catchup a lot on the digital side as we weren’t first party to a lot of that – and that checklist will look pretty conventional to most marketers.

Where I think the innovation will come is in finding new ways to get people closer to our property. I won’t necessarily deliver the most innovative ad, but there is certainly a high bar and expectation that our app can’t just be any old app. We just had a conversation about our next app as we’re relaunching that, and it spanned from utility and basic things like looking for the tent or where to park, all the way out to the most delightful thing you can imagine.

For example, if we know you’re there, we can geotarget you and our clowns can come find you, or we can sprinkle you with dust. There is this span of capabilities. What’s important is we can’t give one up for the other. We also put a dimension of time in it, so there’s a heat moment just leading up to the show, during the show and then after. But what about the two years before you experience our live show again? What’s that relationship like?

My instinct is we can do some fun things with notifications, pop-ups and so on. Our fans like us – we are not the worst email to receive in the world. But we have to live up to the idea of the show and remind you of that delightful moment. How do we do that and evoke that without annoying you for those two years? That’s where the innovative piece has less to do with a new banner campaign, and more about all those ways we can have a conversation with you.

How do you define digital at Cirque?

On the one hand, there is the infrastructure, enterprise stuff that would be recognisable to any company. For us, the need to have more advanced ticketing infrastructure is also important. That’s the kind of work that supports marketing. Even just gathering our data in one place is part of the process for this data warehouse process. It’s the first time we have had to do that really and it’s a monster of a project.

The part of digital that excites me is the storytelling opportunities and the chance to have conversations, and dissect these beautiful shows we do that are enormous in scale and larger than life. Digital is the place where we can get granular. I want to connect our make-up specialists, who are artists in their own right, granularly with that community of people for whom that is their passion. I want to connect our dancers and costume designers and those micro conversations to happen.

We’re primed for it. Our performers are largely digital natives, they push us and have performers with Instagram followings that are 10 times that of Cirque’s. We have visual stories to tell, so all this media is great for them and they’re pushing us into that space.

Historically, Cirque was more concerned about not having one star. Everyone was part of the whole spectacle. There was resistance in the early days of the Internet and pre-social media, and there was a conscious effort to not unmask people or that a show was starring a particular person. So much has changed since then. What’s interesting is the artists are ready for it. So Cirque is catching up with it and there is no resistance anymore.

How do you prepare your people for those conversations and activities?

Our artists often have very short performing careers and for them, there’s a need to figure out what the next thing is. Traditionally, it could be becoming an artistic director, choreographing, director, but it happens in a short window of time.

We’re discovering people through this process. One is Emily Tiernan, who came to us with this notion about creating our Cirque workshops in different categories. She is a business major, already considering the end of the dance career, and she thought this could be an interesting internship opportunity with the marketing crew. Next thing she knew she was leading this initiative.

Not only did we create an organic program, led by someone who knows this community in the most intimate way… she’s now saying this is what she wants to do long-term. The message that sends back to the company is fantastic. There are so many ways it becomes valuable in helping our artists to develop.

The other thing is that sales and marketing are one unit at Cirque. We have specialists on both sides of the ledger, but what’s fascinating is how verbal people are everywhere about sales, as we’re driven by ticket and gate.

In my first sales and marketing retreat, I asked them about lunch and learns, and what topics and reports we should do. My group collectively all said they wanted to understand the financials, of how pricing and discounting works. Standing on stage, they see the result of what I do every night, and whether it’s a half house or full house, it matters to them. It’s fascinating that a circus organically found a way to bring all that into one conversation. The passion on top of that is an intense commitment to what we do every day fuels that further.

What are some ways you’re looking to drive intimacy through your digital marketing strategy?

The balance with traditional analogue and digital is still about 70-30. Within that, Facebook has been tremendously important for us. It’s a place where we can eavesdrop on conversations and know more about our customers. That and our paid social network are the core of our 30 per cent digital spend. Then there is the social content strategy that augments that and where a lot of our effort goes.

We have campaigns that go out geographically, and we’re really starting to emphasis our ‘feeder’ markets, such as Los Angeles, which has the highest visitation to Las Vegas. So we’re rolling out outdoor, radio and digital.

We are still largely dependent on analogue things – brand ambassadors, star appearances. It comes down to using a standard list of categories all the way to things as basic as texting on arrival to welcome you to a show.

Through all this, mobile is incredibly important for us, especially in a leisure town, and that’s where it becomes important for us to build our own data strengths and assets, and have an ability to communicate to that army of fans directly.

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Digital Marketing Summit in Las Vegas as a guest of Adobe.

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