Challenger Brand Ringling Bros. Makes A Comeback

August 15, 2022 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Tucked away on a spring-fed, crystal-clear lake nestled deep in a northern Michigan forest, lies the Sullivan family cabin. It’s modest. More than 100 years old. And the most peaceful place on earth for me. Every summer, I journey north and spend a week or two at our family cabin to relax, to read, to recharge. There is always something new to learn from the solitude and the echoes of nature rolling across the water.

Two summers ago, more than 80 of our extended clan gathered at the cabin for a Sullivan family reunion. It was at that family gathering that my cousin told me about a memoir written by my great-grandfather Henry Broughton Sullivan. In it, Henry described his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1880s as the city was swelling with the flood of immigrants and taking shape as a future borough of New York City. The stories he recounts from this period offer an amazing historical perspective, and none more enchanting than his description of the annual visit of a beloved challenger brand – the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® circus.

Magic comes to town.

“The Barnum & Bailey circus camped near us each year, and from school’s dismissal until dark we were on the grounds watching the preparations for the arrival of the elephants and the main part of the show. A dozen or more large red wagons pulled by two or three teams of horses and piled high with seats, tent poles, and stakes arrived on the lot first.

The next day, wagons loaded with tents, a kitchen wagon, and an office on the administrative wagon cut deep ruts in the soft Earth as they lurched, pitched, and rolled heavily into the places assigned them. The shouts of the drivers, sharp cracks of the whips, the clank of the harness, and thud of straining hoofs sent thrills rioting through us as the hulking forms moved about the field in the dusk and the lights from hand lanterns danced like fireflies in and out of the murky shapes. We could never decide just which spot on the grounds we should be on at any given time, or why. The cook tent with its aggravating odors certainly needed our inspection. But then if we missed the watering of the elephants, what about that?”

Henry’s story goes on to describe the spectacle of what was rightfully billed as, “The Greatest Show on Earth®.” I thought of that story last week when I saw Ringling Brothers is making a comeback in 2023, this time without animals. It’s a great challenger brand story. What remains to be seen is how it will end.

The rise and fall of the circus.

When Ringling Brothers shut down their circus in 2017, it was the end of a 146-year run. To frame that, the circus started five years after the end of the American Civil War. Considering that only one company in a thousand stays in business longer than a century, that puts Ringling in rare company. It was also why their closure was so heart-breaking to so many.

Going to the circus used to be a rite of passage. It was a legitimate tie to yesteryear and an undeniable childhood box to be checked. But in an era more enlightened about the effects of animals in captivity, it was also an experience destined to change dramatically, or close.

Like Sea World’s decision to stop breeding and showing their Orcas, Ringling Brothers first tried to retire their elephants, moving them to dedicated elephant sanctuaries. But ultimately, that wasn’t enough.

Interestingly, at the same time Ringling Brothers was struggling, a new Circus concept from Montreal called Cirque du Soleil was gaining in popularity thanks to their massive presence in Las Vegas with shows like “O,” “Love,” “Ka,” and “Mystere.” Their traveling tent shows like Alegria and Kooza visiting major cities around the country added to the allure. Where traditional circuses like Ringling Brothers leaned heavily on animal acts, Cirque was wholly focused on extraordinary human performers complemented by production design leveraging technology, lighting, and music in a completely new way.

Gone were the calliopes of old in exchange for current world music that sounded more like a rock concert than a carnival. It was revolutionary for the category. But even Cirque couldn’t weather COVID, filing for bankruptcy protection in 2020. They, too, are now on the comeback trail. In the perfect challenger brand mindset, the headline on their website reads, “Intermission is over!”

The challenge of reinvention.

One of the hardest things for any brand to do is to change the way consumers think about them. For challenger brands with limited resources, it’s even harder. But that’s exactly what Ringling is trying to pull off. In a show that promises to look, sound, and feel more like “America’s Got Talent Live” than three rings of sawdust, clowns, animals, and a Ringmaster, Ringling Bros. is hoping circus fans will once again flock to the Greatest Show On Earth — albeit, to one that’s quite different from the one they may remember.

For challenger brands to succeed, they have to embrace the idea of over-commitment. That means focusing on the one or two consumer decision points they have to win and doing whatever they have to do to win them. For Ringling, the first of those was retiring their animals.

As much as there was a segment of the population who loved seeing the lions, tigers, elephants, and bears up close, the public outcry from PETA and the protesters outside every show forced them to change.

Their second area of overcommitment will be a little tougher. That is creating a show so unique and spectacular that people cannot afford to miss it. Thanks to televised talent competitions and the internet, that bar has been raised considerably in the last five years. But if any company can do it, Ringling Bros. can.

The price of success.

Challenger brands know who they are for and who they are not for. That means sacrificing somewhere. To Ringling’s credit and advantage for nearly 150 years, they have always been for families. Feld Entertainment which produces Ringling Bros. has forever been committed to producing events geared to entertaining parents and children alike. The circus. Monster Jam. The AMA Supercross Championship. Disney on Ice. Marvel Universe Live, Sesame Street Live, Jurassic World Live Tour. Feld understands that in a world where both kids and adults are more and more tethered to electronic devices, there’s magic in a shared sensory experience.

There’s magic in watching children become consumed with the roar of the engines. The theater of music, technology, and performance. The collective gasps of the crowd. No kid will ever remember a Saturday afternoon playing a game on their phone. EVERY kid remembers their trip to the circus. As the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency, we’re certainly rooting for Ringling to succeed. When challenger brands win, there is nothing better.

Except maybe another 70-degree day on a small, placid lake in Michigan.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising, and marketing, leadership, culture, and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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