Changing Brand Audiences – a Dilemma for the Circus and Every Brand

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “the Greatest show on Earth,” is going into the history books. After a 146-year run, it is folding the big top and pulling the show off of the road. In an interesting–and decidedly modern–decision, they will stream their last performance on Facebook Live on May 21, 2017.

But the end of the circus does not reflect an overall trend. In fact, personal spending on events and experiences has been on the rise for several years. The fear of the millennial generation disappearing individually into their devices and a virtual world hasn’t materialized. Maybe because of the digital separation, they are much more willing to spend their income on experiences instead of things. Whether it is to fulfill a need for human interaction or just to have something to share later, American spending on events and experiences has been on the rise since the digital generation arrived.

In the face of overall category growth, how did the circus fail and what’s in store for other iconic events and their changing brand audience?

When the Main Event Becomes a Sideshow

It’s a conundrum that companies, especially event brands, have faced before: how to address changes in audience. The Ringling Bros’ and Barnum & Bailey Circus had been facing growing protests regarding the elephants used in the show for years. And although attendance at live family shows was growing nationally, by as much as 18% recently, changing interests and values didn’t result in a growing audience for the circus. People were apparently more interested in seeing animals in their natural habitat or as close to it as possible. Those interested in daring feats were less impressed with circus offerings on the high wire than by any number of extreme sports activities and videos available anywhere. Bowing to pressure, the circus decided to drop the elephants.

One problem. The audience that was attending was interested in one thing: the elephants. A year after announcing the retirement of its iconic elephants from the center ring, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the circus stated, “the decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business for the company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated.” Or maybe it could have been, if the circus was more in tune with the audience that was actually attending. 

Brands Can’t Afford to Lower Their Guard

Two examples that should be paying very close attention to their audience right now are the NFL and boxing. For 2016, the NFL saw viewership drop by 24%, 19%, and 18% for Monday, Sunday and Thursday night games respectively. That’s huge. While the NFL is still a behemoth on the television schedule, these decreases should be noted for several reasons. First, the loyal audience, the ones that consume games in their entirety, is aging. Secondly, the new audience is less engaged and might care more about their “fantasy team” than an actual franchise. They have no need to sit through a 3-hour broadcast full of commercials – they can get the information they need through their smartphone wherever they are.

The sweet science of boxing is squaring off against the new kid on the block, mixed martial arts (MMA). While globally, top boxing bouts out-draw the biggest MMA challenger, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), by a large margin, that’s not the entire story. Boxing’s true showcase events are limited to just a handful of names that have broad international appeal. They are not getting younger and won’t compete forever. By many measures, the UFC has more star power within its ranks. That translates to marketing power and a growing audience. This Google Trends chart compares the US interest in both sports. If the trend continues, boxing could follow the circus into the annals of history.

Ask Your Audience

As the population looks to spend more on experiences, events won’t get a free pass to success. Those that don’t listen and provide their audience with the experience they want will be passed by. The shift could come from anywhere: changing values, norms, technology or interests. It’s up to event brands to ask the questions of the audience and listen to their responses.

For more on how you can keep and grow your audience, check out FIVE GATES OF BRANDING: AUDIENCE.