Umbrella Movement told thru Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil, the self-described “dramatic mix of circus acts and street entertainment” is spectacular. In addition to the spectacle of the performance, Cirque du Soleil is remarkable from a business standpoint too. They have basically turned the circus business, which was ailing for decades, on its head. And, in redesigning the circus experience they created a lucrative new segment[i]. For the purposes of this blog entry, the features of Cirque du Soleil's business model also provide an interesting lens to view issues underlying the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.

Cirque took the sideshow elements out, i.e. no bearded ladies, and totally did away with animals, company wide. The treatment of the elephants, horses, monkeys, et al. by the 1970’s was already becoming an animal ethics issue for the traditional circus, with some firebrand animal rights protesters and so forth popping up. Cirque du Soleil did away with what were increasingly incongruous wild animal acts, dropping the executioner-looking tiger tamers, but kept the fundamental death-defying DNA of the circus for good measure.

Probably the most spectacular thing the new Cirque business model did was to eliminate star performers. In the old days, jugglers like Enrico Rastelli and acrobatic performers like Jules Léotard, were household names. From the ranks of the equestrian whizzes, to the trapeze guys, to the clowns even, it was the acrobats that had fewest peers. They were named acts that the circus would give billing to; mind you, ticket-buyers weren’t just going to the circus, circus-goers were going to see Rastelli or Léotard, the same way a contemporary audience would go to see Tom Cruise or Jacky Chan. Of course the circus would do well when they sold tickets, but as the fame of the performers grew the “bargaining power” of those performers grew in tandem[ii].

When Cirque pioneered its model- one particular aspect stood out- it eliminated star performers. Not only are its performers simply not billed, the corollary is that they are faceless and replaceable. No matter how good you were, no one could know your name. In successfully introducing this new model, Cirque dramatically reduced the bargaining power of its perfomers. They made John or Juan or Zhang, who may very well have been the top in his acrobatic discipline, unnamed and faceless. Sure, if Cirque mistreats him he could jump ship to a rival company, but he would only be as good as his talent on that day, not commensurate with the clamoring purchasing power of a rapturous bunch of Rastelli or Léotard fans, who ultimately wanted to specifically see those guys.

At any gym today, you will notice that the trainers hustle and do their thing- but roam around as if pooled into a sum-total of manpower, which can be broken off when necessary. That is, the gym has learned from the Cirque model; the gym will make sure to rotate trainers, transforming Paul and Chris into 16 hours of sellable training on Tuesday, not giving any trainee a chance to get too close. This is purportedly to give the client a buffet of training specialties. But really, it is designed to frustrate the chances of their trainers to usurp their clients to another gym or to offsite private lessons, and nipping in the bud any star power that the trainers may be developing.

 Yes, there are Tom Cruise's and Jacky Chan's, but we are transitioning from a Fat Tail world to a Thin Tail one. That means for every A-lister, there aren't 5 B-listers, but 500 D-listers. It doesn't mean that quality drops more precipitously than it used to as you go from A-to-B-to-C-to-D, it just means that for whatever reason commoditization happens earlier.

Acrobats and Jugglers were able to achieve irreplaceability- with all the embedded economic benefits that being irreplaceable entailed. That that was something that kids used to have in their grasp, and they could juggle their way to fulfilling their dreams. My sense of the Umbrella Movement is that there is a younger generation of Hong Kongers who don't believe- they think their future is one where they might be excellent but still replaceable.


[i] DeLong, Thomas J., and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan. "Cirque du Soleil". Harvard Business School Case 403-006, July 2002. (Revised October 2002.)

[ii] Porter, Michael E. How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School, 1979. Print.