By Gary Symons
TLL Editor in Chief
One would be hard pressed to find anyone in the modern world who doesn’t know and love Cirque du Soleil.
That’s why it comes as a surprise that, until now, Cirque has never really had its own comprehensive licensing program, despite being one of the world’s most successful live entertainment companies.
But that all changed this year, as veteran growth strategist Tara Nickole literally ran away to join the circus.
“You know, joining the circus was not on my vision board, but here I am,” Nickole says with a laugh. “But why did I join the circus? I guess I’ve built a career in live entertainment, and if I look backward at what has been appealing in the jobs that I’ve really loved it was coming in to organizations that had, you know, high level expectations and goals, but not necessarily a journey charted to achieve those things. And so, I call it you know, a entrepreneurial mindset or just a desire to create.
“So the call from the circus was, candidly, a little bit out of left field, but I felt like ‘you really have to take a call from the circus. I mean, it would drive me wild otherwise!”
Nickole joined Cirque in August 2022 as its Chief Growth Officer. Prior to that appointment she was Senior Vice President at AEG with a global portfolio across the company’s famous live music festivals, like Coachella and Stagecoach.
That happened in late 2022, and already Tara is building up a team, snagging some licensing power in her new Head of Licensing and Collaborations in Eleni Planet, who formerly oversaw the brand licensing business at Warner Music Group.
Both women say the challenge and the opportunity with Cirque is that it is a powerhouse in entertainment, but never had an overall licensing strategy. In that sense, Planet says, it’s a bit like working with new bands, building both a brand and a licensing strategy from scratch.
“The goal is to create an evergreen brand in retail, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” Planet says. “I was fortunate enough to be a part of the growth of other evergreen brands, more specifically in the music industry with artists like the Grateful Dead, and I can speak with experience that the business that was built with these artists took years and years, so that’s what I’m anticipating for Cirque, but in five to 10 years what I want to see is an evergreen brand touching every tier of retail across every product category.
“I think that’s achievable, because there’s so much about Cirque that makes it so special, and it’s so unique.”
Tara says that’s also what drew her to Cirque du Soleil, which enjoys almost fanatical loyalty among its millions of fans.
“You know, this brand was built over the last 40 years by Guy Laliberté, who is a really magical, artistic genius, and he was maniacally focused on his artistic process and show creation, which is honestly why Cirque has develop so many incredible projects with such longevity,” Tara said. “I think Cirque was not focused on licensing in the past because the entire focus was on the show and on creating that sense of magic.
“So yes, we are at the beginning of the game in terms of licensing, but on the other hand, we are working with a brand that has incredibly strong brand loyalty,” Tara added. “I mean, we have shows in Las Vegas that have been operating for 25 or 30 years on stage, and we sell 109,000 tickets a week in Las Vegas alone.”
In the modern era, as traditional circuses fell by the wayside, Cirque’s vision and obsessive attention to detail in costuming, story, song, and performance has transformed the little Canadian circus into the number one touring show in the world.
Between its Vegas and touring shows, Cirque sells an astounding 11 million tickets a year from its current roster of 38 shows. In that sense, its global reach exceeds even the Olympics, which rings in at roughly five million people globally.
Perhaps even more importantly, people who have seen Cirque, even on television, absolutely love it.
Cirque’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) is at 46, Tara says, which puts it in the rarified company of the world’s most admired companies, like Google, Apple, Netflix and Disney. In regions where Cirque shows are more common, like the US and Canada, the NPS rating is way up in the 80s, which is almost unheard of.
(Editor’s Note: NPS is a measure used to gauge customer loyalty, satisfaction, and enthusiasm with a company that’s calculated by asking customers one question: “On a scale from 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this product/company to a friend or colleague?”)
Tara and Eleni say they are now hard at work turning that consumer loyalty into a variety of product partnerships, starting with the metaverse and gaming.
The goal is not just to boost revenue, but also to safeguard the circus from unforeseen events like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tara points out that during the pandemic, Cirque went from being the number one show in the world, with 5,000 global employees, to being shuttered and having only 50 employees in a matter of two weeks.
But when the pandemic subsided, a newly restructured and refinanced Cirque du Soleil emerged and almost instantly won back its fan base, packing theatres and circus tents in Vegas and around the world.
“It’s wild to think about that in terms of our live shows, it’s only been two years and we’ve come back stronger than ever,” said Planet. “But that said, I think the COVID experience is a big reason for this newly created Growth Division.
“I don’t think anyone could really have prepared for COVID, but I believe the newly created Growth Division under Nickole will not only build the brand, but will enable Cirque to better withstand any other future storms as they come.”
Tara and Planet have already been hard at work on their first licensing programs, and have already scored some early success.
For example, Cirque collaborated with NYX, the edgy and hugely successful cosmetics subsidiary of L’Oreal.
“We did a really robust campaign last Halloween with NYX professional cosmetics, and we did these six very extreme Halloween looks that were inspired by different Cirque characters,” said Tara. “It was blasted out to over 300 retailers globally at point of sale, and it was one of their most successful Halloween campaigns in L’Oreal history.”
Cirque is also in the midst of a partnership with metaverse leader Roblox, designing its own world within the Roblox platform. No details are available as yet, but Tara and Planet believe the interactive, performative nature of the metaverse makes it a key area to focus on for a brand whose core nature is based on creating performance art.
This year the team is focused on expanding Cirque’s roster of licensing partners, but Planet says they are also being very careful to select long-term partners who share Cirque’s artistic and inclusive vision.
“It’s all about finding brands that understand what makes Cirque as unique and special as it is,” Planet said. “I think there’s truly no entertainment group out there that you can compare to Cirque du Soleil, so in no way are we kind of doing a logo slap our own brand name when it comes to the way we put out live events.
“So, we want to look for alignment with brands that recognize that and also have a very similar thought mentality behind the way they operate their brand, and realizing that Cirque isn’t like any other IP they have worked with in the past.”
Tara agrees, saying Cirque has a vision of achieving a level of excellence in licensing that would put it in the same company as other global entertainment leaders.
“When I look at brands that have done such an incredible job of licensing themselves, whether it’s Disney or Lego or Hasbro or Barbie, you know I want us to be in that group,” Tara says. “I aspire in five years that we are in the top five of brands that people say they want to work with, and that they want to aspire to.
“I truly believe we can make it there and that we have the operational underpinning to make it happen,” Tara added. “We just need to be focused and be aligned with the right partners.”