Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 8 of 12: “First Steps Across the Sea”

For years, we’d dreamed of performing in Europe. We were convinced that there was a place for our shows there. In 1989, a business opportunity opened up for us. We needed a new show for our 1990-1991 North American tour, and Le Cirque réinventé (The Circus Reinvented) with which we had opened the United States, became available to be presented elsewhere. In Europe, Germany was our first choice. Circuses are very popular there; they draw a sophisticated, affluent clientele.

We were determined to try our luck. We’d been negotiating with a German producer for three months. But the agreement fell through at the last minute. Clearly, there had been some misunderstanding. We rushed to adjust our plans because the artists and technicians were as good as hired. We had to find an alternative solution and in a hurry. We decided to perform in London and Paris—and do it on our own.

In London, we located a site, the Jubilee Gardens; we also found a big top. We were pressed for time. London, the entertainment capital of Europe, is enormous. The English knew nothing about Cirque du Soleil, and we knew little about them; the challenge was considerable. Nevertheless, we knew that just as in North America, the people most likely to buy tickets and appreciate our show had an above average level of education and family income.

After engaging in much preparation, and putting many safeguards and installations in place, we premiered on July 31, 1990. But that summer, England suffered its worst heat wave in 60 years. To make matters worse, the big top wasn’t air-conditioned. The heat wave lasted a good three weeks; it was a disaster. The only tickets people were buying were the least expensive seats on the side. The most expensive seats, those around the ring and in the center stands were empty. People who could have afforded to pay for them had fled the city to take advantage of the fresh seaside air.

To top it all, opinions were divided in the English media about our show. Some reviewers complained that our show was too clean, too colorful. Journalists also grumbled that our performers smiled too much and their teeth were too white. One magazine even quipped “safe sex, safe circus.” It was a long, hot and humid summer, but the team hung in there. September brought some relief; our target clientele returned to the city; and word of mouth began to work for us. But it was too little, too late; our financial losses were substantial. Yet, we had drawn a little over 50,000 spectators, and it was some consolation that no other Canadian cultural product had attracted as many customers in a single run in London.

Paris was waiting. There, we didn’t play in a big top; we performed in a theater, in the form of a big top at Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione in the 11th arrondissement. Built under Napoleon III, the theatre was owned by the Bouglione family, who were circus legends. We signed contracts with TF1 and Groupe Europe, an important French media group. We were privileged to work with some of the best people in the industry: Rose Léandry, Gérard Louvin, Tony Krantz, and Dominique Larmoyer. It has often been said that it’s tough to do business with the French. And it’s true! Nothing that works elsewhere on the planet can work in France. Everything had to be reconsidered, re-done: signs, slogans, and communications. And yet, I love the French!

Finally, it was the day of the premiere. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it was the finest premiere evening in my whole time with Cirque du Soleil. An absolutely magical evening that took your breath away. Many of the oldest, most celebrated European circus families accepted our invitation. Our room was filled with history. It was as if ghosts were present. We got excellent reviews — the media were less divided than in London — and French audiences loved our artists’ sparkling costumes, smiles and white teeth. The Paris operation paid for itself financially and even yielded a slight profit. But, before we finished our run, the Gulf War broke out and along with it a collective psychosis. We packed our bags and returned to Canada. Game postponed due to bombing!

Know When to Say «No»

Cirque National Suisse Knie asked us for permission to present Le Cirque réinventé. It would be a follow-up to our visits to London and Paris. From a Business perspective, the Knie family was requesting us to grant them a licensing agreement for our show. It would assume the production costs and pay royalties on ticket and merchandise sales. Knie presented Cirque du Soleil on its annual tour of 60 cities, villages and cantons. Under the Knie’s big top were united all the elements of Le Cirque réinventé: music, décor, costumes, artists, and direction. In addition, there were the Cirque Knie animals for which we designed costumes matching the colors of the show. The entire operation took place on Swiss territory.

After London and Paris, we believed that being involved in the Cirque Knie tour was an excellent way to gain exposure with a new European clientele and to test our product. It was 1991 and the tour was quite a success everywhere. In Switzerland, Cirque Knie was an institution, and its annual tour was eagerly awaited. In fact, the operation proved so popular that the Knie family wanted us to come back… They were eager to stage Nouvelle Expérience, which was capping off a magnificent two-year tour in North America. The Knie offer was interesting, but we decided to decline, and retain the possibility of introducing our shows on European soil ourselves. Sometimes you have to know how to say “no.”

Be Yourself

In marketing our shows throughout the world, I kept certain basic principles in mind. They were inspired by popular sayings my parents taught me when I was a child. They apply to all sorts of situations. In my professional life some are particularly relevant. Why look for complicated theories when we can access our cultural background for tried-and-true principles?

Here are two of the sayings: “In Rome, do as the Romans do” and “If you want something done well, do it yourself.” These sayings propose a straightforward approach to life. Taken together, they may seem paradoxical. Let’s look at the two. “In Rome, do as the Romans do.” In international marketing, obviously you need to understand how locals do things. That way you draw inspiration from them. Above all, you can break down the resistance to your product or service. Globalization has forced us to think globally but act locally.

To reduce the gap between consumers and our product, we had to reach out to the community, become a part of it. We had to be aware of their social and cultural context. All this was necessary to ensure the success of our operations. In the process, we got to know extraordinary individuals teeming with ideas.

As a rule, the people we met producers, promoters, public relations consultants, communicators and the media found our openness charming. In fact, some even became our friends. Yet, there was a drawback. Most of the local collaborators we met on our travels were so eager to share their expertise with us that sometimes they wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Usually, they weren’t aware of what they were doing. It was only natural for them to suggest tried-and-true ways of doing things that they used every day, and that worked very well most of the time. Seldom, did these professionals completely understand that since our product was original, it required an original approach. That’s when I went by the dictum “If you want something done well, do it yourself.”

Our marketing objectives bore no resemblance whatever to those normally driving the entertainment industry. We were operating on a scale way beyond what our local partners were used to seeing. “Hello. You don’t know us but we’re a circus the likes of which you’ve never experienced. We’re lugging around our big top, which seats 2500. We’ve decided to perform in your fine city, where we’ll sell between 100,000 and 250,000 full-price tickets!”

With ambitions came responsibilities. We had to make sure things were done correctly. So we spelled out the way we wanted them done. And we left no doubt in their minds about our expectations, clearly explained the sequence of activities, presented a precise action plan, provided the means for carrying it out and saw to it that our goals were achieved.

Part of my job in Marketing was to act as Cirque du Soleil brand manager. In the context of exporting our product, it felt more like brand protection. We were presenting a live show to an audience inside a venue closely resembling a huge sailboat. Careful! It’s fragile! The operation had to be carried out with the utmost care. I was not only concerned about the uniqueness of our product; I was concerned about its vulnerability. I knew that paying attention to detail would be rewarded in the way the public, opinion setters and media perceived us. It would also impact in our results.

People often asked me what were the differences between Japanese, American, Dutch, Chinese, English, Canadian, and German customers. Truth to tell, there were many. In the age of market globalization, though tariff barriers have been abolished, cultural differences fortunately have survived. Above and beyond differences in the exportation process, the people had one point in common: as consumers, they knew how to recognize quality in a product or service. Their needs were real; their expectations constantly evolved.

It’s important to remember that the personality of consumers is continually changing. It may be surprising, but in this respect, things move very fast! It’s not that time is going faster; it’s that the information disseminated is denser, more focused and, above all, more pertinent. Technology is accelerating the circulation of ideas. All this leads me to think that the 21st century won’t tolerate redundancy. There’s a tendency to eliminate it. The global village really exists; what’s more, it brings forth unforeseen developments.

The Cirque du Soleil marketing philosophy could be summed up in three words: creativity, identity, and competitiveness.

CREATIVITY: Our product was innovative and universal. We always invested in the creation of new shows and we clearly demonstrated our capacity for renewal and transformation. Our greatest passion was the pursuit of bold new artistic challenges.

IDENTITY: Our focus was youth, and more than 25 nations were represented on our staff. In our organization, we affirmed our cultural distinctiveness around the world, and we strongly supported bold entrepreneurship.

COMPETITIVENESS: We set new standards of excellence in our sphere of activity. In all our markets, our commitment to excellence became the standard. We didn’t aim to succeed at all costs; we simply wanted to finish what we had begun.

In exporting our shows, we have been highly successful. We have met with acclaim and affection around the world. Our most significant marketing triumph was our unique positioning with our consumers. For many entertainment industry observers, Cirque du Soleil was a sign of things to come. It was an organization that positioned itself in a context in which culture was the currency of human beings in search of an identity.