Cirque du Soleil a growing marketing behemoth at 30

Cirque du Soileil’s “Drailion”

It would hardly be a stretch to suggest Cirque du Soleil has become part of a circle of entertainment events that can, in a way, call Chicago a home.

For the truth is, the Montreal-based producer of circus spectacles has been regularly visiting the Windy City for nearly 25 years  in a blue and yellow circular tent that gives audiences a real, dazzling and often innovative taste of the old-fashioned one-ring circus experience.

But today, as it approaches its 30th anniversary, Cirque is far more than a quaint throwback to circuses of yore.  Cirque has quite methodically — and brilliantly — morphed into a marketing behemoth that has learned how to expand its well-established brand to reach ever-larger numbers of customers.

That impressive ability to manage and grow its brand is readily evident in Cirque’s current visit to Chicago.  Cirque is remounting one of its former shows, “Dralion” in the United Center through Sunday.  Yes, that’s right.  Inside the United Center — not in the familiar Cirque tent that has for a number of years been pitched in a parking lot adjacent to the United Center.

The United Center “Dralion” engagement follows a week at  Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, a venue ideally situated to accommodate audiences from a number of near-in suburbs.

This move into large arenas is a relatively new development for Cirque. But it is part of a carefully-thought-out plan to bring Cirque to a wider range of smaller (and large) markets and streamline the complicated process of transporting and mounting the show.

Cirque actually has been quietly expanding its arena touring schedule over the past couple of years.  But “Dralion” marks the first time a Cirque production has played an arena in Chicago proper.  Like the other Cirque shows that have been making the arena rounds, “Dralion” is a reincarnation of an earlier Cirque production that debuted in 1999.

According to Cirque spokeswoman Julie Desmarais, this revised “Dralion” arena presentation includes new circus acts, at least one new character in the show, and a new lighting design that takes advantage of the larger, indoor spaces in which the show is playing.

But most importantly, this arena “Dralion”  is a breeze for the company to move around the country — at least compared to the typical tent production that has been Cirque’s principal product to date.

More revenue generated with fewer performances

This edition of “Dralion” for instance, travels in just 18 semitrailer trucks, compared to the 60 to 70 trucks required for the typical tent production.  And “Drailion” can load in to a typical arena in a mere 12 hours, as opposed to the 10 days needed to set up a Cirque tent show in a new market on tour.

But from a marketing perspective, this move into arenas gives the Cirque marketing team a much bigger palette with which to work.  At the United Center, for instance, Cirque is selling only 3,900 of the arena’s 20,500 seats.

Though Cirque is using only a small part of the United Center’s total capacity, the show inside an arena has many more available seats per performance than the 2,500 Cirque can sell per show  inside its touring tent. 

The top premium ticket price for this arena staging of “Dralion,” by the way, is $145.  So, by using arenas, Cirque can generate much more revenue with far fewer performances than would be the case with a typical tent engagement.

Shorter runs, however, means Cirque must advertise and promote these arena engagements aggressively to generate ticket sales.  That means, of course, that television ad buys are heavier than usual to reach larger numbers of potential ticket buyers faster.

Bonds with young audience through social media

But according to Cirque’s Desmarais, the circus company has also moved heavily into social media, especially Facebook, to bond with this often younger audience — a key target demo for the Cirque shows — and make special offers to get them in to see the shows.

Though Desmarais says Cirque has no plans — yet — to completely abandon its tent for the ease and comfort of the arena touring format, it is clear the company has taken a major liking to arenas.  Next month, a second Cirque arena production — “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour” — will have a brief run at the United Center.

The Michael Jackson show is billed as more of a concert experience than the usual Cirque fare. But it is yet another example of how Cirque is broadening its brand to encompass many different forms of entertainment — after having done an excellent job of establishing its core expertise in the circus arena, so to speak.  It’s what is known as smart brand building and brand extension.

And we haven’t even mentioned another example of Cirque’s expertise, namely the manner in which it moved into Las Vegas many years ago and slowly but surely became the dominant purveyor of entertainment for casino crowds looking to take a break from gambling, as well as families that are increasingly a part of the Vegas tourist mix.

Only failure was in Chicago with “Banana Shpeel”

Only once — so far anyway— has Cirque stumbled badly. And that was in, wouldn’t you know, Chicago, where in 2009, it tried to mount a vaudeville-style theater production called “Banana Shpeel.”  It was, to put it charitably, an abysmal failure almost impossible to explain, given Cirque’s impeccable track record until then. A lot of people, it appeared, all dropped the ball at once.

Still, “Banana Shpeel,” is but a small black mark on what has been an extraordinarily good report card for Cirque.  And we see no entertainment company on the horizon likely to catch Cirque as it steadily marches toward world domination in the entertainment business.

Oh, and by the way, when Cirque’s “Dralion” closes at the United Center Sunday, the cast and crew will go on vacation break for a couple of weeks and then restart the tour in Sunrise, Fla., a town of only around 85,000 people.

Yes, bit by bit, this marketing behemoth called Cirque du Soleil is making itself known in places large and small all across America.

Contact Lewis Lazare at