Episode 23: How Cirque Du Soleil Soared Above Vegas

Guest: Alma Derricks VP of Sales & Marketing (former), Cirque du Soleil

To keep a brand fresh, one must inevitably change it, but as the former VP of Sales & Marketing of the Retail Sales Division at Cirque du Soleil, Alma Derricks knows that not every trend is suited to reach the customers in every industry. In fact, her discerning tastes were part of the reason why The CMO Club awarded her with a Customer Experience Award late last year. So, follow the marketing ringleader as she guides us through how Cirque Du Soleil kept delighting audiences in a highly unusual, highly competitive market. [Note this podcast episode was recorded in late 2016 and this post is based on my AdAge column that ran on December 14th, 2016. Derricks has since left Cirque but I suspect you will find her insights timeless – click here to listen now.]

Step right up

Throughout her career, Alma Derricks has gravitated towards moments of inflection, the latest of which found her with Cirque Du Soleil last July under a new ownership structure. It was her ideal scenario. “I love getting to ask questions, top to bottom, without any regard for how things have always been done. And that’s what I walked into,” she noted.

She soon learned that Cirque, even as a 30-year-old institution, largely grew organically and as a consequence hadn’t relied on marketing thinking to drive sales. Today, sales are still strong, but the market has tightened thanks to competing residencies from artists like Britney Spears and Celine Dion. “In Las Vegas, we sell as many as 20,000 tickets a night. It’s a lot of inventory in a very, very busy town,” she says. “My job is all about keeping our shows top of mind.”

To make Cirque the most prominent carnival barker in town, if you will, Derricks’ team had to reinvent their marketing. “We have to always make the loudest noise in that environment and make sure that visitors are still aware that we’re around, that we’re exciting and that we’re vital,” she said.

Backstage access

A big barrier for Derricks’ team was helping consumers differentiate between Cirque’s shows. “One of the real challenges we have is needing to flip the brand script in Vegas and emphasize the show ahead of the Cirque brand.” After all, no two productions are alike. “They all have very, very different personalities,” said Derricks. “The thing that I’ve been working on quite a bit is: how do you communicate that each show is the only show you have to see?”

One strategy involves pulling back the curtain—something Cirque had previously been reluctant to do. ”It’s something that our founder was very, very cautious about in the early days of social media,” explained Derricks. However, audience expectations have changed, and social media is one marketing tool not to ignore. “So we’re trying to find ways to facilitate that via social media and social content and by creating events in Las Vegas that are complete behind-the-curtain experiences.”

The show must go on—again

Another strategy—one that Derricks was particularly proud of—was to refresh one of its most popular shows: The Beatles’ LOVE. “I didn’t completely understand until we were well into the process that Cirque has never rebranded an existing show,” exclaimed Derricks. For LOVE’s tenth anniversary, Derricks and her team revamped the music, show and visual identity of the production, recognizing that advancements in tech over the last decade would enable an enhanced experience.

“Cirque has always taken pride in its fusion of technology and artistry,” she offered, “so it seemed very natural as the tenth anniversary approached to rethink the staging, effects, and imagery. The original show was very nostalgic. Today, it’s more colorful and, at the same time, showcases the fact that The Beatles are as relevant today as they were in the 60s.” For fans, the revamp was a couldn’t-miss.

Audience participation

Lastly, Derrick and her team seized the chance to use their expertise for an additional source of income. “We’ve actually created an entire line of business called SPARK that serves as a learning laboratory for corporate teams,” providing interactive business training and team building with a customized curriculum. Companies like Adobe and Google number among the participants. “It’s both an amazing bucket list moment and a chance to really learn about trust, team building, operational excellence and customer service in a very tangible way,” explained Derricks. “It’s taking off like a rocket, and has not only created a new way access the brand but also makes a strong statement about who we are.”

Meet the Guest

Alma Derricks is an accomplished media executive and ‘intrapreneur’ with keen consumer instincts and a track record of leveraging brand equity to increase customer engagement, expand market share, and create new lines of business. In April 2017, she became CMO of El Rey Network to oversee all consumer and trade marketing.  Derricks most recently served as vice president, sales and marketing for the Resident Shows Division of Cirque du Soleil, which oversees a portfolio of eight permanent shows in Las Vegas and Orlando.

Drawing on a unique combination of television, live entertainment, licensing, advertising, and digital media experience, she has developed and produced multiple-medium programming and content networks for a range of internationally acclaimed franchises including Star Trek, Entertainment Tonight, Dilbert, and Peanuts and held a series of ground-breaking consultative and senior management positions at Paramount, Deloitte, Scient, United Media, the Los Angeles Times, HBO, and Cirque du Soleil.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Stanford University and an MBA from Georgetown University where she was both an NBC Fellow and Dean’s Scholar.

What You'll Learn

  • Why you shouldn’t follow the herd – not every trend is suitable for your business.
  • When it’s time to refresh your products or services.
  • Why you should tackle hard questions and criticisms head-on.
  • How to flip the brand script and stand out from the crowd.

Quotes from Alma Derricks

  • I take a lot of pride in being willing to raise my hand and ask the tough questions without insulting or embarrassing anybody. It’s just about getting to the core of the issue.
  • There are real human beings on the other end of a digital channel. Once you've opened that channel, it’s a real two-way conversation, not a broadcast. It’s not top-down like traditional media.
  • For the vast majority of those years, Cirque grew organically because it was new, different and dazzling... Marketing thinking is a relatively new thing for Cirque, but incredibly important now that we’re not the newest kid on the block.
  • Just because the world is talking about spending more and more on digital doesn’t mean that it’s right for your business… It’s not about being modern or not, it’s about knowing your audience and understanding your context.

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