Suddenly, all the lights go out.
The circus crowd falls silent, watching and waiting in suspense. A single spotlight breaks the darkness, shining down in the middle of the ring.
The ringmaster, a tall and stately man wearing an extravagant tuxedo and top hat, paces slowly into the spotlight. He stops in the center of the beam. Twirling dramatically, he raises his hands and shouts into the silence, “Welcome to the greatest show on earth!”
The circus has begun.
The audience gasps in unison time after time as the mysterious characters, unbelievable stunts, and outlandish performances unfold. This world of thrills and plays with their imagination. Trapeze artists fly through the air, exotic flamethrowers tease fire, and ballerinas dance on galloping horses. The crowd leaves in a trance, processing all the reality-stretching wonders they just witnessed.
The inspiration for this captivating circus experience began in Connecticut during the 1840s when notorious businessman, practical joker, and creative genius P.T. Barnum opened his American Museum, a showcase of absurd characters and sights. His brilliant, albeit tumultuous, career is a tale of marketing innovation and business success.
Everywhere we look, we are inundated with shiny new technology, tools, strategies, and channels that just keep on changing and emerging. Do we ever look to history books for ideas? Probably not. It’s natural to dismiss the print-only marketing of the past as irrelevant to the digital marketing of today. But we shouldn’t.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Sarah Ruscoe, content marketing specialist at TINYpulse, shared, “If you are looking to try something new, my best advice would be to cast a net that’s as wide as possible when seeking inspiration.” So cast it all the way back to the nineteenth century to learn from P.T. Barnum and his inception of the circus.
Image attribution: Becky Phan
P.T. Barnum had a knack for turning the abnormal into the phenomenal to elicit intrigue and shock. He discovered society’s outcasts and made them national celebrities.
He knew how to stretch reality just far enough to still be believable and induce awe. In his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum—Written by Himself, he writes that he knew what would “excite the interest or awaken the curiosity of the public.”
His “collection of curiosities” featured at the American Museum (many fabricated) included what he described as “industrious fleas, educated dogs, jugglers, automatons, ventriloquists, living statuary, tableaux, gypsies, albinos, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope-dancers, and caricatures of phrenology” among other oddities. He even claimed to exhibit an recreation of Niagara Falls—inside the museum.
The first unusual character he discovered was Charles Stratton, a five-year-old with dwarfism whom P.T. Barnum described as under two feet tall and weighing less than 16 pounds, “a bright-eyed little fellow, with light hair and ruddy cheeks, was perfectly healthy, and as symmetrical as an Apollo.” He dressed him in a general’s uniform and paraded him around the world (with his parents) as “General Tom Thumb,” even appearing before Queen Victoria by special invitation.
While these exact tactics would be considered exploitative today, there’s still a lesson to be learned. Consider how you can also “awaken the curiosity” of your audience and grab their attention by taking an unusual twist or using a shock factor in your brand storytelling. You don’t have to totally diverge from your brand’s personality, but inserting something unexpected in your marketing can do wonders for engagement rates by creating a sense of anticipation.
To really engage your audience, you must have an intimate understanding of their needs, wants, and desires. P.T. Barnum knew that his profit depended on how the public received and responded to his shows. This required an acute knowledge of human nature. When asked what makes someone a successful showman, he responded, “The first qualification necessary was a thorough knowledge of human nature, which of course included the faculty . . . to please and flatter the public.”
P.T. Barnum also knew that a general understanding of how humans as a species think, feel, and act wasn’t enough. You can’t always accurately predict your audience’s reaction. P.T. Barnum warns, “The public is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusements to hit the people right, they are fickle, and ofttimes perverse. A slight misstep in the management of a public entertainment, frequently wrecks the most promising enterprise.” What he did know was that the crowd expected to be amazed and stunned. And he consistently delivered on that expectation.
As humans, we all want to feel understood and supported. The crowd wasn’t P.T. Barnum’s only audience. He also knew how to reach his circus cast. P .T. Barnum created a community and sense of belonging for his cast of misfits. They were used to being rejected or ridiculed for their unique characteristics. But P.T. Barnum celebrated these things. The circus gave them a chance to feel a sense of belonging and purpose.
Let your audience be your starting point. What do they want? How can you help them? What are they worried about? How can you entertain them? And if you don’t know, ask. It’s not worth wasting time projecting when you can get the answer right from the source.
“Learn your personas,” says Marlon Heimerl, content marketing manager at Bellacor.com. “Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and ask yourself how to provide the best answers to the questions that vex them. From there, quality content will come to you in a sincere moment of measured clarity.”
To foster community, interact with your audience through your brand channels and in real life. Support them and solve their problems in the context of your brand purpose.
More than anything, P.T. Barnum was a risk-taker. Whether it was meddling with a tin peddler or exhibiting a supposed dead mermaid, he embraced the risk of the unknown. And it usually paid off.
His riskiest—and most lucrative—business investment took place in 1850 when he booked the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” for a hundred appearances in the United States. It was a bold move that plunged him into opera, an entirely different type of entertainment. The simple elegance of Jenny Lind and her sophisticated audience were also a huge contrast to the costumed cast of misfits and the common crowd of his American Museum.
The boldest part about this investment was that he had never heard her sing. He justifies, “I had never heard her sing . . . her reputation, however, was sufficient for me. I usually jump at conclusions, and almost invariably find that my first impressions are the most correct.”
After pondering it for several days, all the angles he considered had “one result—immense success.” He was right. Their national tour was a wild success, catapulting him into high society and resulting in over $700,000 in ticket sales. Obviously, this is an extreme example. But there’s something to his reckless ambition that we can learn from.
It’s normal to question your instincts, but taking a risk will present either a rewarding result or an optimization opportunity. Be smart about where and when you take risks, but don’t discard an idea if doubt is the only thing standing in the way of giving it a try.
Put aside your pride, too, if you’re afraid of embarrassment or shame. Research published in Harvard Business Review shows that embarrassment and creativity are connected. In one experiment, participants were asked to spend ten minutes brainstorming ideas after describing either an embarrassing moment or a proud memory. Those who told an embarrassing story came up with a greater amount and diversity of ideas.
Even if a risk doesn’t work out, it may help you arrive at the next, better idea.
P.T. Barnum got creative with what he had to solve problems—both when hard on luck and while enjoying his wealth. His wit and creativity helped him get out of trouble and rise to success, mostly on his own. He fixed instead of replaced.
Considering his purchase of the American Museum, he reflects, “I saw, or believed I saw, that only energy, tact, and liberality were needed, to give it life and to put it on a profitable footing.” His resourcefulness and drive brought this vision to life.
Even after making it big, he continued his frugal ways. In an article he wrote titled “Barnum’s Rules for Success in Business,” he advises, “Avoid extravagance; and always live considerably within your income, if you can do so without starvation!” Similarly, he goes on to urge self-reliance. “Do not depend on others . . . every man must be the architect of his own fortune.”
When marketing performance is down or declining, don’t immediately conclude that you need to add to your marketing plan with a new campaign, bigger budget, different channel, or another partner. First, optimize what you have to innovate within your current scope. You’ll find that it forces you to think creatively, and you might be surprised with the results. There are so many things you could add, but the unlimited options can become a crutch or distraction to a simple solution right in front of you.
We also see the benefit of self-reliance in cultural differences. According to several international standards, Icelanders surpass other nationalities in innovation and creativity. New research aiming to uncover the reason for these creative traits found that Iceland’s innovation education (IE) curriculum is the likely source, introduced over 20 years ago.
In schools, children are taught resourcefulness, independence, and imagination to cultivate the belief, “I can solve problems.” Barbara Kerr, one of the lead researchers, explains, “Kids learn, ‘I can solve problems with the skills I have and my creativity.’” This self-reliant approach to life carries over to adulthood, hence the cultural creativity. The approach of looking for answers within ourselves and our work is both simple and effective.
So don’t look to add; look to adjust.
P.T. Barnum embraced promotion of all kinds, from newspaper ads to influencer endorsements. In a rare expression of humility, he writes, “I freely confess that what success I have had in my life may fairly be attributed more to the public press than to nearly all other causes combined.”
His advertising was sometimes misleading and backfired, but his ability to arrest attention is admirable. P.T. Barnum repeatedly asserts his reliance on the “powers of the press.” While managing several lottery businesses, he drew in customers with unique ads in local print publications and his own materials including handbills, gold signs, and placards. He did the same for every business venture, including the American Museum.
As long as your success depends on support or interest from the public, he recommends, “Advertise your business. Do not hide your light under a bushel.”
Make promotion a mandatory element of your brand storytelling. It is possible to both promote your content and put your audience first. And now more than ever, it’s one of the only ways to fight brand-punishing algorithms, regardless of your mission. P.T. Barnum expresses the industry-agnostic need for promotion: “There may possibly be occupations that do not require advertising, but I cannot well conceive what they are.”
After the success of the American Museum, P.T. Barnum’s career took two drastically different paths: opera and politics. The pivot featuring Jenny Lind was extremely profitable. His foray into politics began in 1865 when he won a Republican seat in the Connecticut General Assembly. He then went on to run for US Congress (but lost), became mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then returned to the Connecticut General Assembly. As a politician, he advocated passionately for equal voting rights, reforms in favor of temperance, and the end of the death penalty.
The broad scope of his endeavors doesn’t mean your strategy should change often or drastically.
You definitely need consistency to differentiate and build a reliable brand. Just stay open to smart shifts. When your current strategy plateaus or engagement drops from audience boredom, try a new angle. Change could be needed in your messaging strategy, visual identity, content platform, brand tone, or even your team.
Although your marketing history might have nothing like it, if you’re making an informed decision, then it might very well be the right one.
Use data to direct any pivots. As Marlon Heimerl shares, “Pure creativity is important, but without data driving research and outcomes, you’re really putting the cart before the horse.” Follow your instincts, but ground your strategy in results.
P.T. Barnum’s entire life is often described as an ongoing advertising campaign. While the career of this self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbug” was not free of deceit, it is packed with marketing insights that are still relevant.
Since childhood, he was always putting on a performance. He spun stories, tricked friends, elevated oddities, and engaged audiences with his imaginative exploits. Without any digital distractions, his success came from his dogged resourcefulness and sharp intuition.
So take a hint from circus history, and let time-tested marketing principles guide you.
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Featured image attribution: Southern Gal