The circus is a thrill, a locus of nostalgia for people who remember summers with family members under colorful tents, a beloved amalgam of the athletic and the absurd, the rare place where jugglers and acrobats and fire breathers can fly free, fodder for countless movies and a Dr. Seuss book — and, not to be a downer, a business.
The circus has to make money to keep its clowns clowning.
Coming out of the pandemic, Cirque du Soleil was in trouble. The company had staked nearly all its revenue in live shows, with their dizzying displays of balletic grace and gravity-defying gymnastics. After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2020, Cirque decided it had to be more than just a circus. It wanted to be a brand, something that could sell perfumes, sunglasses, tote bags and video games. So over the past year the circus brought in consultants, which yielded months of meetings peppered with phrases like these.
“I think there’s a real opportunity to elevate the art of clowning.”
“Don’t focus on the Cirque, focus on the Soleil.”
“We want to think of Soleil as the building blocks of vibe.”
“We’ve thrown a lot at you.”
“Lots of Soleil!”
“So much Soleil.”
Cirque du Soleil hired a “cultural analysts” firm, called Cultique, to answer an age-old question: Is it possible to hack popularity?
Cultique argues that it is. Analysts there are in the business of selling cool. And their work with the circus this year has offered a glimpse into what it takes to change a business’s reputation, to do a brand makeover at a time when social media has made branding both more important than ever and more fraught.
Cirque’s leaders felt confident that their company embodied everything Gen Z loves: campy outfits, kitschy makeup, feats of athletic daring. Sequins, spandex, being extra. Yet few of that generation — people born from 1997 to 2012, who now have $360 billion in consumer power — seemed interested in the circus. Cirque’s more than 40 shows sell 10 million tickets a year around the world, with a focus on its American home in Las Vegas, but mostly to a middle-age (or very young) audience. The average Cirque attendee is 42, according to the company. More than two-thirds have children under 18.
Cirque du Soleil turned to Cultique to become relevant. And Cultique promised, improbably, that even at a moment when culture seems to move at the speed of (sorry) a flying trapeze, it’s possible for a savvy old business to catch up.
“We literally help people get ahead of the curve,” said Linda Ong, Cultique’s co-founder and chief executive, later adding, “The secret sauce to our business is we help brands anticipate what’s going to change before it’s widely acknowledged.”
It’s not exactly obvious how to define culture. It’s everything we wear (crochet, sheer); listen to (Dua Lipa, Doja Cat); watch (“Real Housewives,” “Barbie”). Ms. Ong uses water-based metaphors to describe it. Culture is a wave. You can ride it or get pulled under.
Seemingly invincible brands have shown what it’s like to feel the culture wave crash. Pepsi ended up pulling a 2017 advertisement that showed Kendall Jenner handing a soda can to a police officer. Bud Light lost its status as America’s top-selling beer after it faced backlash for a video from a transgender influencer promoting the beer this spring. If culture is water, the surface is murky.
Enter Ms. Ong and her business partner, Sarah Unger, who promise to help companies devise business strategies, marketing campaigns and products that appeal to cultural sensibilities — before those sensibilities are even fully formed. Cultique doesn’t rely much on data. Ms. Ong and Ms. Unger believe that once trends show up in surveys, it’s too late. It’s best to identify cultural obsessions before they’re on TikTok, before young people are talking about them, right before anyone recognizes they’re real.
“There are two kinds of people,” Ms. Ong, 60, said. “People who get turned on by culture and people who don’t understand it.”
The notion that anyone — let alone a 60-year-old and 37-year-old corporate duo Zooming from Los Angeles — can describe cultural fixations before they manifest sounds dubious. Popular culture, after all, is not all that different from other cultures, like cheese, yogurt or kombucha. It’s alive. It’s organic. It isn’t designed by some all-knowing authority. It just happens.
But Cultique’s founders swear that cultural relevance, like any element of business, can be studied and controlled. Last year, that work brought in $3.8 million in revenue for Cultique, which has just two full-time employees and typically a dozen or so contractors. Skeptical, I decided to follow them as they took on the task of transforming Cirque du Soleil.
‘How Do We Become the Theme at the Met Gala?’
Everyone at Cirque du Soleil was astounded to hear I’d never been to Cirque du Soleil.
“It’s your first Cirque?” said the company’s senior tour director, Michael Veilleux, during intermission at a Cirque show called Corteo (theme: funeral meets carnival) in Newark. “You don’t meet many people who it’s their first Cirque.”
He really doesn’t. That’s partly the problem.
Cirque’s shows, as I witnessed, have pole dancers, upside-down shoes without feet and clowns dressed up like horse butts. They have audiences of parents looking harried and children chucking popcorn on the floor. What they don’t seem to have is an expansive base of young adult fans.
It was Covid that prompted Cirque du Soleil’s existential crisis, and decision to chase a new cultural image. After Cirque’s executives tended to all their immediate March 2020 demands — sending performers home, storing hoops and silks away in warehouses — the Montreal-based company furloughed 95 percent of its 5,000-person staff. Only roughly 150 remained. After vaccines, as the circus began to rehire those workers, executives swore they’d pandemic-proof their business. Cirque couldn’t be entirely reliant on its performances.
Today, about 80 percent of its revenue comes from live shows. The company’s chief growth officer, Nickole Tara, can envision a time when performances will account for just 20 percent of the revenue stream.
Executives at Cirque are experimenting with anything a young person curious about the circus might buy. A video game called Cirque du Soleil Tycoon set for release on July 28, with the gaming company Roblox, in which players can build their own circus world. A signature fragrance (for the clown lover in your life) and a line of home goods (think maximalist rugs and psychedelic curtains). Corporate partnerships with companies like Motorola, which introduced its new flip phone in an event in June produced with Cirque.
Cirque is working on a television documentary series, likely to be called “Down to Clown.” It is planning a convention styled after Comic-Con, the fantasy events that draw tens of thousands of people annually, which it hopes to launch this year.
“We are going to try so many new things,” said the circus’s head of growth, Ms. Tara, 39, who last year left the music festival world for a newly created leadership position at Cirque. “We have to embrace the Cirque of the modern era.”
Some brands ooze the kind of cachet that people want to wear. Supreme sneakers. Kylie cosmetics. Others have to think a little harder about the version of themselves that they could commodify — like how to turn a zany old circus into a brand people consider relevant.
On this question, Cultique has been full of ideas, especially during a meeting in early March, when a handful of Cirque executives joined its cultural analysts to discuss what success would look like for their partnership.
“How do we become the theme at the Met Gala?” Ms. Tara mused.
“It’s not a crazy idea,” Ms. Ong responded. “How do you make your events the Met Gala equivalent?”
The assembled group — which included Cirque’s head of global branding and social media, Chris Bower, and the Cultique analyst Rajiv Menon — agreed that it wanted Cirque to be ubiquitous. They wanted people to wonder why everywhere they looked there was Cirque du Soleil. Roaming Art Basel. Holding court at New York Fashion Week. Spotted with Jenna Ortega. Partnering with Versace.
“‘Oh my God, everywhere I turn Cirque is doing cool things with cool people,’” Ms. Ong said, imagining the party chatter she wants to generate.
To Ms. Ong, this doesn’t seem like an inordinately tall order, because she already sees young people embracing the qualities associated with the circus, especially over-the-top performance. They’re just not making the connection to Cirque’s business. In her mind, Cirque needs to publicly own the themes percolating in culture, what she and Ms. Unger refer to as “the Soleil Strategy.”
“It’s like porn,” Ms. Ong said. “Everybody knows the Cirque du Soleil vibe when they see it.”
The Zeitgeist Whisperers
You’d be forgiven for thinking “cultural analysis” was required reading for a humanities seminar, or a mash-up of modern art and Freud. But for Cultique, it’s a business venture, which can feel like a surprise even to Ms. Ong and Ms. Unger, who are still processing the fact that they make their living talking about the television, art, fashion and music they love. (Their weekly Substack is called “Culture Porn.”)
Ms. Ong grew up in the 1970s in Texas, where she was the only Chinese American in her mostly white elementary school class. Once while playing dodge ball, one of her classmates pointed at her and yelled: “Give the ball to that Mexican girl!” Culture made Ms. Ong feel less lonely. She binge-consumed “Hotel California,” “Gilligan’s Island,” Reader’s Digest and “The Brady Bunch.”
Ms. Ong moved to New York after college and then bounced around advertising jobs. She helped lead branding for Bravo. She realized she had a talent: telling corporate people what cool people were talking about.
As a longtime marketer, Ms. Ong loves metaphors. One of her favorites compares Cultique’s work to testing the atmosphere in preparation for a rocket launch. Their clients are building the ship, making sure all the parts are working. Doesn’t it make sense to ensure the atmosphere is amenable to flight?
American Express Global Business Travel hired Cultique in 2021 to study how corporate travel is changing. Cultique’s white paper recommended that companies appoint “chief journey officers,” making travel a bigger part of company life. Cultique characteristically interspersed corporate phrases with zeitgeisty lingo: wellness, burnout, hybrid work.
Buttoned-up clients (including Amex) like Cultique because even its workplace policies are playful. The company has a four-day workweek. Ms. Ong and Ms. Unger did a boot camp to study their brain waves and determine which parts of the day they’d be most productive.
Both Ms. Ong and Ms. Unger regularly enter what they call the “cone of silence,” when they stop communicating with one another and instead rabidly consume culture, which can mean, depending on the day: “Love Is Blind” (Ms. Unger); “The Bear” (Ms. Ong); heavy metal (Ms. Unger); World Wrestling Entertainment (Ms. Unger); going to a wolf sanctuary (Ms. Ong); getting on a motorcycle (Ms. Unger).
They keep group chats with their clients going all day, sending articles, songs, videos or TikToks that relate to the work, which in Cirque’s case they call “Cirquecore.”
“Has there ever been a CIRQUE Barbie?” read one recent text from Cultique.
“HERMES’ new fragrance is ‘the sun as perfume,’” read another.
“I also am interested to think of Cirque’s performance as religion,” Ms. Unger wrote to the group one day. “People are more spiritual than ever, esp. Gen Z.”
Magical Mystery Tour
The word nostalgia came up often in conversations about reinventing Cirque. “Nostalgia brands are having a moment,” Mr. Menon, a Cultique cultural analyst, declared over Zoom one day. What could be more nostalgic than the circus, with its popcorn and clown noses?
Speaking of nostalgia, sometimes what Cirque seems to be chasing is its history. Before Cirque was a company making close to $1 billion per year — which it is doing again today, after bouncing back from its pandemic slump — it was a scrappy group of acrobats and stilt walkers putting on a show for residents at a youth hostel in Quebec City. Cirque’s founder, Guy Laliberté, who stepped down as chief executive in 2004, came up as a fire-breathing performer on the streets of Montreal. He cobbled together his artist friends to create a festival.
Mr. Laliberté has attributed part of the show’s success, over the years, to parties he threw at his lakefront mansion: Women sang opera on gondolas, a 19-piece orchestra serenaded the crowds, the host himself breathed fire. These raucous gatherings have attracted celebrities to Cirque’s mission, including George Harrison, who once attended randomly while in town to watch Formula 1 and was so impressed that he asked Mr. Laliberté to make a Beatles-themed show. (The first business meeting between Cirque and the band ended as Paul McCartney drew a picture of Nowhere Man, handed the paper over and told the Cirque team to “figure out what this means.”)
If the Beatles loved Cirque’s brand, why not Gen Z?
Sitting through a Cirque performance is also a reminder of the features that to some audiences could seem out of step with the times.
At the show I attended, one of the longest sequences focused on a little person named Valentyna Pahlevanyan, who attached herself to balloons and floated over the sprawling arena as audience members pushed on her feet to send her upward. The room rang out with cries of “I want to touch her!” Then she and her husband, Grigor, also a little person, performed a humorous version of “Romeo and Juliet” with interruptions from clowns. There were also jokes about a large man jumping on one end of a seesaw with a smaller man at the other end.
To Cirque, this is a testament to the show’s inclusivity. Michel Laprise, who has directed three of Cirque’s shows, said the performers help shape their own roles. Choking up, he likened the performers’ relationship with the show to a marriage.
“I want them to be loved by the audience,” he said. “It’s important that we have little people in our shows. It’s a way to say they exist. They’re not victims.”
“The show tells you that no matter how tall you are, how big you are, whatever your background is or what you look like, you can still work here and do the job that you’re meant to do,” said Ms. Pahlevanyan, 60, adding that she and her husband helped create their “Romeo and Juliet” sequence to capture the comedy and chaos characteristic of Cirque.
Still, part of what Cirque is looking for is a version of its brand that doesn’t need the show for relevance (or for all its revenue).
That ambition is distilled, partly, on the company’s social media. On Cirque’s TikTok there are prank ideas, fitness tips, Halloween costume inspiration, wedding proposals and Black History Month reflections. In one video, Cirque dancers do ballet to the saccharine strains of Michael Bublé. In another, they compete in a push-up competition.
Since starting its TikTok in 2021 and beginning to emphasize its other social media accounts, the company has accumulated more than eight million followers across platforms. Some of its TikTok videos get three million views, and many of those viewers are far younger than the 42-year-old show attendees.
“Last month the question was raised: How do we get more of our TikTok fans to buy tickets to shows?” Ms. Tara said. “I don’t know if that’s the point.”
Cirque had its strongest financial year in 2022. Sitting at the Ludlow Hotel during a visit to New York this spring, Cirque’s executives told their cultural analysts that they’d been creating a video that showed how Cirque’s brand could be translated into fashion and home goods.
The video cycled through images of acrobats, trapeze artists and clowns. Then commercial items appeared on the screen — tote bags, sunglasses, pantsuits, pottery — along with the text “Prime for retail expansion.” It was a vision of what Cirque, divorced from the circus, could be.
“This is what Cirque du Soleil — and the Soleil — can look like in a physical object someone would actually go and buy,” said Mr. Bower, Cirque’s head of branding.
The cultural analysts were dazzled. “We love this relationship,” Ms. Ong said. “It’s like improv. Y’all take the ball and you’re like, ‘Great, OK, let’s do this!’”
Later that night was Cirque’s event with Motorola in Brooklyn. Half-naked acrobats spun through purple, misted air. Eerie percussion music filled the room. Dancers in extraterrestrial-looking leotards leaped across the stage. And as the performers did acrobatic flips, Motorola unveiled its new flip phone, a nostalgic take on the early 2000s accessory.
“OVER THE TOP, OTHERWORLDLY, and AVANT GARDE,” Ms. Ong declared over text. “Totally on brand!”