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The Last of the Greatest Shows on Earth

By Mary McCool

Towards the end of May this year, I took an impromptu trip with a friend to see the last of the greatest shows on earth. I had seen Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as a kid; I still remember riding around on my Dad’s shoulders through the crowd, the dark of the arena with its spectacular glowing center, feeling connected to the crowd with the totally awesome light-up toy I got to wave around. Frankly, I don’t really remember the animals or much of the show itself. Decades later, what I remember was the experience; a feeling.

Going to see a Ringling circus in 2017, I was apprehensive about seeing the animal acts, and was glad to read the elephants, at least, had been officially taken off the tours in 2016. But the circus had been fighting this publicity crisis for 14 years, and it was crippling; the organization couldn’t seem to maneuver around it. The superlative show became known to some as “the saddest show on earth”, and “the cruelest show on earth.” The position Ringling found itself in proved unsustainable, due in large part to declining ticket sales which worsened when elephants were removed from the lineup.

But I don’t think the lesson here is that elephants were crucial to the show. I think the lesson is about how important it is to figure out what really matters to your brand, and tell that story. Cirque de Soleil continues to prove that a circus can not only be a sustainable business, but a wildly profitable and well-loved global institution. I’m not saying Ringling needed to send in the Canadian clowns, but it may have missed an opportunity to roll with the punches and evolve. Everyone loves a comeback story. But few enjoy watching an organization bang its head against a wall.

Telling your story doesn’t mean repeating the same message ad nauseam. It means finding new ways to invigorate your core “why”. And as seen in the case of Ringling vis à vis PETA, if you don’t take control of your own story and tell it well, you risk others telling it for you.

It’s not about the animals.

It’s true, our love for celebrating animals is limitless. But in 2017, more and more people are in tune with higher standards of animal welfare. It’s weird to see animals forced to perform tricks in front of a crowd, and know that they do this many times a week throughout the year. As a culture, we’re leaning toward knowing better.

Luckily, my friend and I were fabulously late, so we missed seeing the lions and tigers hop around on boxes. But I will say that they did have a lot of horses, llamas, dogs, and more in the second act. They made a cute little dog jump off a 15-foot-high platform into some kind of stretchy tarp, and it was distinctly uncomfortable to witness. In a completely not-cool way. (The acrobats and ice skaters, on the other hand, were amazing.)

In the old days, a circus may have been the only way for people in many parts of the country to see a lion or an elephant. These days, we have the internet. Ogling how amazing animals are is a pillar of YouTube; an informative rattlesnake video from a father and son duo was’s third most viral video of 2016. From cute to epic, this kind of voyeurism allows us to enjoy the wide world of animals at a safe distance, without the implicit support of being a ticket-buying witness to something questionable. And if you’re into abusing the world’s exotic, endangered species, something is seriously wrong with you.

Even if, after deep examination, Ringling determined that animal acts were necessary to telling its brand story, there are other, more creative ways to achieve this kind of spectacle without offense. Have you seen what people are doing these days with puppetry? Ringling might have kept an elephant presence onstage without ever needing real elephants. Massive hit shows like the Lion King and Warhorse, seen on Broadway and international tours, demonstrate the crowd-pleasing magic possible with this kind of creativity in storytelling. If the circus is about igniting families’ imagination, why not lean into that, in ways families can unabashedly support?

Because, again, it’s just not about the animals, even when it seems like it is. It’s about uniting families in adventure, amazement, a new experience. Animal acts are simply a way to deliver that mission: a tactical operation, not a strategic one.

It’s about story.

In today’s digital world, audience attention is a precious resource. If you’re not clear on your story, you won’t keep your audience for long. Ringling needed to identify what was core to its identity, and lead with that. With 146 years of shows, there’s a lot to draw from. There’s actually a museum dedicated to it. What about the experience was essential, and how could it have capitalized on that?

Because Ringling leads with a time- and location-sensitive product, identifying the core reason why it has to be seen in real time and space, why it has to be live, is an important part of the picture. Timeless elements of family — both the families who attend and those who make the circus, seem integral. This understanding may have helped Big Apple Circus, who shone the spotlight on life in the family circus with its behind-the-scenes PBS documentary series CIRCUS. And despite recently being sold to the highest bidder, it will return in the fall.

Another successful circus story can be seen at “Absinthe” in Las Vegas. The opposite of a family show, this circus experience delivers a sexy, steampunk aesthetic, devilish live comedy emceed by the Gazillionaire, and in-your-face acrobatics in close proximity to the audience. One reviewer called it “Cirque de Soleil on Red Bull and vodka.” And even with the advantage of a semi-captive Vegas crowd, at six years running, it certainly seems like it’s giving people a reason to go to the show.

Take control of the narrative.

 Ringling lost control of its narrative. From the outside, it seems as an organization, it took some of the right steps, albeit slowly. But it didn’t achieve the real reinvigoration needed. It failed on some level at strategic alignment. It wound up with a compromised show and a problematic reputation.

Ringling had all the right ingredients to continue telling a sprawling, truly American story: 146 years of entertainment, millions of fans, a stellar lineup of talented, passionate performers and employees, the fantastic Ringling campus in Sarasota, Florida, and the promise of laudable reparations with the elephant sanctuary. But they failed to unite these ingredients around a clear, focused narrative.

When contemplating growth or an important pivot, or as in Ringling’s case, lost in the weeds of a slow-burning crisis, a deep understanding of your core story will always determine the best course of action. Change is inevitable, but in staying true to what really matters in your story, you’ll keep your audience engaged, honor what you’ve already achieved, and grow your future.

At the end of the day, no matter how convoluted and complex your business is, identifying the core of your narrative and using it as the strategic tool to align every tactic you employ will pay dividends. The heart of your story, or StoryKernel™, as we call it at Woden, is the foundational narrative architecture that will support and help determine everything your company does.

Mary McCool is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.