Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 7 of 12: “Strength in Diversity”

“Tickets, please!” It’s worth noting this aspect of Cirque du Soleil’s operations. Few companies can employ Cirque’s approach to customer service. It’s one of the great mysteries of modern management.

One day, as the 20th century drew to a close, I was back in Montreal serving on a business conference panel on customer service. The speakers who preceded me came from major service firms (telephone, electricity, malls, etc.) For nearly two hours, I had listened to them discuss the need to pump huge sums of money into staff training and recruitment. Some even cited statistics comparing performance with the length of training.

Others boasted about the vast amounts their company had invested the previous year. The participants with eyes agape dutifully took notes, enthralled by such a display of wisdom and modernity. But I could hardly relate to their remarks. I might have been on another planet. In fact, I started to question my professionalism. Was I a marketing VP or not?

When my turn came, I felt a little ill at ease. I wondered whether I’d do better to keep my counsel, feign sickness and slip away …What a pity to put a damper on such fin-de-siècle sagacity and mutual admiration among major corporations. But someone had to tell them the “truth”! Summoning up my courage, I began my presentation by congratulating the previous speakers. I acknowledged the complexity of their system, the high degree of sophistication required; a truly inspiring demonstration of the art of human resources. Then I revealed I had a little surprise in store for them.

In an important aspect, Cirque du Soleil resembles other retail firms: employees in direct contact with the public handle customer service: the ticket-booth clerks, the ushers and concession staff. But the problem is that these people are temporary, hired for the length of our engagement. Their primary qualification is their availability. In some periods of the year and in some towns, they can be hard to find.

Job applicants are usually hired on the spot. So you’ll find a diversity of people with respect to age, race, sex, and hair color. You’ll find piercing adepts, retirees, students, the unemployed, and welfare recipients — quite a team! We give them four hours of training for a specific job and… “Tickets please!” What’s amazing is that normally it all works out very well. The employees take pride in their work and the customers are open-minded and respectful towards them. It’s as if there’s a certain understanding between the public and temporary employees. What more could we ask for? That’s how we manage to defy the laws of customer service.

My co-panelists were somewhere between stunned and amused. They insisted that I must be an exception. The audience didn’t take notes during my presentation. Some looked a little puzzled. They didn’t know what to think! Good for them! Others beamed, happy to see that there were other ways of doing things. The conference coordinator was encouraging: “It takes people like you to get things moving; don’t give up Jean!” So, off the beaten track, you can often get where you want to go!

Souvenirs Here

T-shirts, programs, posters, clown’s noses… get your souvenirs here!” From the time Cirque du Soleil began, merchandise sales were always important to the company. It was a highly lucrative sector of activity, contributing to the deployment and exploitation of the brand. We gradually developed our merchandise through trial and error, an approach that brought improvements year after year and yielded excellent results.

As the 1985 tour began, we just started with our first line of products (T-shirts, programs, posters, sweatshirts, clown’s noses, etc. Our approach was simple and intuitive. A few days before the first performance on the tour, Guy burst into my office. He was beside himself. He gave me a dressing down as only he could do. He was furious that I had authorized such a large order of products. He claimed we didn’t have enough liquidity to justify a big inventory. I pointed out that our order was based on extremely conservative sales projections and that, in my opinion, it was the least we could produce if we wanted to have a favorable cost price ratio.

I also assured him that I had taken care to negotiate reasonable terms of payment with our suppliers. But to no avail. The tirade continued unabated. I attributed his reaction to stress brought on by the tour launch. The next Monday, after our first week of shows, Guy called me up and tore into me again because, he said, we risked running out of stock. Customers couldn’t get enough of our products: our merchandise was flying off the shelves and during the first weekend our sales succeeded all expectations.

We never really suffered from product shortfalls while I was running the marketing department. Consumers appreciated our highly diversified range of articles as to price and type of product. They were happy they could find items for as little as a dollar and as much as $500. What was really amazing is that fewer than 10% of the products generated over 85% of the revenues. This applied to almost every city we visited in the world. Our best sellers were our videos, music, and souvenir programs.

In the early 1990s, we tried to set up a licensing program, in which we granted operating licenses for use of our trademark to manufacturers who distributed their products in large stores and specialized boutiques. We teamed up with Determined Productions, a San Francisco firm, with solid experience in the domain. The company acted for us, developing concepts, models and visuals, which it offered other firms involved in clothing, accessories, toys, jewelry, etc. Company founder and chairperson Connie Boucher fell in love with Cirque du Soleil. She was passionate, honest, dedicated, and a bit of a visionary. She was an artist. Jean Laliberté, Guy’s dynamic younger brother ran this highly ambitious project.

Could the qualities of our new show trademark be projected onto clothes and other popular consumer items? A number of factors had to be taken into consideration. First, brand recognition. How recognizable was our brand to consumers and what did it conjure up in their minds? And what demographic should we target initially? Children, teenagers, adults, men, women? We also had to determine the range of products to create. Which should we choose: sports clothes, leisure wear, jackets, pants, dresses, ties, scarves, travel items, decorations, wallpaper, gift items, Christmas articles? The list was endless. There were so many questions, that our agent preferred not to answer them directly but to get advice from manufacturers who had a sense of flair.

Our agent’s concepts appealed to some of the manufacturers who attended our shows. Quite rightly, he wanted to take full advantage of the imagery and creations we’d developed over the years. But after a few years our efforts had failed to bear fruit. Especially after the death of our beloved Connie, the firm’s chairperson and principal stockholder, her estate decided to end the partnership.

Nonetheless, the experience taught us how to exploit the brand. Souvenir merchandising received more emphasis. Our products sold best when they were directly linked with our shows. That’s one reason why Cirque du Soleil boutiques are so successful in Orlando and Las Vegas because they are located near the theater.

I believed that brand exploitation deserved particular attention. The recent events led me to draw the following conclusions: we were among the best in the world in the live show sector, and we’d carved out an international reputation for excellence. Our merchandise sales were strongest on the show sites themselves.

In distributing the music from our shows internationally, we faced stiff competition. All you have to do is go to a record shop to see that. The same applied to our television shows, films, videos, cartoons and variety shows, etc. In these sectors, the competition was generally light years ahead of us.

Associating the characteristics of our brand with other areas of activity — amusement parks, hotels, restaurants, spas, — was, I feared, a risky proposition. There are limits to how far you can stretch a brand, and the limits vary from one brand to another. Apart from the financial incentive, what’s the point of trying to “force” such a fragile and unique brand to expand? Why risk cheapening a treasure?

Some brands lend themselves to all sorts of exploitation. Virgin is an outstanding example. But as far as I was concerned, the Cirque du Soleil brand was intimately related to the Cirque du Soleil experience. The word that best encapsulated the qualities of our shows was authenticity. The further the consumers were from the experience, the less credible and appealing they found our merchandise. Without direct experience, there was no authenticity.

Seize The Moment

The timing of Cirque du Soleil’s launch couldn’t have been better. It was 1984 and there were ongoing celebrations marking the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Canada. And that was the year that Cirque du Soleil was born. In 1985, World Youth Year, the federal and provincial governments instituted programs to subsidize young entrepreneurs and businesses; naturally Cirque du Soleil qualified. Then in 1986, for EXPO 86 in Vancouver the company won an important month long contract to host the Canada Pavilion. Next at the Los Angeles Festival in 1987 we had the honor of holding the opening gala under the big top; we’d entered the American market in a big way.

What was really extraordinary about this adventure is that we had recognized these opportunities and took full advantage of them. Every day of our lives, we run across opportunities, some big and some small. Often, small opportunities turn out to be significant if only we recognize them. We must be open to new ideas and occasions. We need to know ourselves and be aware of what’s happening around us.

Diplomacy’s Everything!

In our travels around the world, we always touched base with the Canadian embassies and consulates as well as the Quebec delegations. Our relations with our country’s representatives took many forms depending on the situation, our needs and the people we were dealing with. As far as I was concerned our representatives were there to provide support. As a taxpayer, I thought, “We’re paying their salary, they’re there to help us, let’s see how we can work together.”

Our relations with diplomats evolved a great deal. When we first started touring abroad, we’d go to see the cultural attaché who would do everything possible to assist us. We would have preferred to work with economic advisers, but they generally didn’t see any point in meeting us. Ever on the lookout for sponsors, we knew the advisors were in frequent contact with local enterprises.

We constantly encouraged the embassy, consulate, and delegation to take advantage of the opportunity to invite their various acquaintances to our shows. We were an excellent tool for establishing business relations. It took a number of years before the economic advisers got on board and the approach became common practice. In fact, it didn’t happen until we became really famous. One day, the Canadian Counsul General in San Francisco confessed that Cirque’s presence in the city generated more press coverage and general interest in Quebec and the rest of Canada than a visit by any government minister, including the prime minister. He jokingly confided to me that if we could guarantee that we’d be in northern California every year, he could close the consulate and save taxpayers money… I found his suggestion very interesting.

In 1990, both the Quebec delegation and the Canadian embassy wanted to hold a reception after our debut performance at the Cirque d’hiver Bouglione in Paris. They were prepared to share the costs. They wanted to sign the invitation card and say a few words of greeting to the guests of honor. We were happy to oblige since it helped cut expenses… But the Quebec delegate general was reluctant to be associated with the Canadian ambassador, and vice versa. It was never done. This was an old story typical of Canada-Quebec relations in Paris.

Representatives of both sides informed us that in France, the signatures of the ambassador and the delegate general never appeared together on an official invitation card for this type of social event. It just wasn’t done! I assured them that I understood but I offered a simple suggestion: either you co-sign the little card or we’ll get along without you, and of course, neither one of you will be mentioned! You’ll just be another guest… That evening we witnessed another first: they were kind enough to accept our offer. That’s politics!