What The Greatest Showman Teaches About Marketing

What The Greatest Showman Teaches About Marketing?

There aren’t many who would argue that the 2017 movie musical, The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, was the most talked-about movie of the year.  With stunning filmography and toe-tapping music, it was difficult trying to hold back from singing along or to fight the urge to get up and dance.

I admit that I may have only watched it a good 20-30 times when it became available. And it may have been the only movie that I left the theater and owned the soundtrack on iTunes before I got home. The movie was truly breathtaking on many levels.

However, after the initial hype of the release was over, I, like everyone else, allowed the movie to slip into my usual rotation of viewing interest, maybe watching it once every couple of months.

Just recently I was working alone in my office, planning marketing strategies for several of my clients, and decided I wanted to hear something familiar in the background. What better than a movie musical?

This setting allowed me to analyze the movie from a completely different perspective.

I had noticed 3 true components of marketing that I had never noticed before. I’m talking about how Barnum overcame trying to start a brand new business from his initial failed marketing attempts to the changes he ultimately made to his product to finally achieve his success.

Clearly, I’m not highlighting the actual historical past of PT Barnum: I’m just outlining 3 key marketing principles taken from the movie musical.

  1. Barnum had a good product concept, but a bad understanding of his audience.
  2. Barnum started fulfilling actual needs.
  3. Barnum had to go big or go home.


Barnum Had A Good Product, but a Bad Understanding of His Audience

Barnum just spent a small fortune on a new business and was convinced the people would come just because of who he is and what he has.

In the beginning, Barnum recruited the help of his friends and family to hand out pamphlets.  One by one, they handed them out to passersby, really trying to convince them this is something they didn’t know they wanted to see. I imagine he told everyone around him personally in the hopes that someone will take an interest.

However, despite all of his gorilla marketing efforts, at the end of the day, only his family purchased tickets to his new business. The streets became littered with his pamphlets. He must have felt dejected after wasting so much time and money.

At this point, he is probably asking himself, “What is wrong with my business? Why won’t people come to see things I know they’re interested in. I know I need to do marketing, and I have, but it’s not working.”

Barnum, like most people, understood intellectually that people have a basic interest in human oddities. It is a completely natural human characteristic to be interested in things that are different from us or something that would challenge our perspective of life.

The question he didn’t think to ask himself was, “How much of his audience would openly admit it?”

We all experience this curiosity from time to time, but society teaches us to ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist.  We teach children to look away and not say anything, and especially in the early to mid-1800s, societal norms were to be obeyed.

So, Barnum feverishly handed out flyers to those who either didn’t understand the value or simply wouldn’t admit they were curious and dismissed it.

As a marketing strategist, I see quite frequently people who have a good product but are so convinced their vision of their product is exactly what people want. They aren’t willing to challenge themselves or their own product.  They seek confirmation bias and validation from friends and family, or anyone else who will tell them their idea is perfect.

This is a danger zone. No matter how hard you try, if your product doesn’t resonate with people, they will not buy.

In this case, even if people were curious about human oddities, they were willing to see wax figures or stuffed animals. In Barnum’s pitch meeting to the bank, he says people are curious about the Macabre. He’s right, but curious enough to pay money to see wax figures? Not likely.

It doesn’t matter what your product is or how much you think people need it. You must be willing to test your own products, and (don’t hate me for saying it) your own attitude about your product. You also need to verify that what you have to offer is what people can use to fill their needs. Even if it means altering your product, you will get much better results.


Barnum started fulfilling actual needs.

One frustrating evening as he tucked his girls into bed, they clued him into some advice that would change his business.

His girls told him he has too many dead things, and that he needed to show something alive.

As a parent, it’s easy to dismiss advice from children, but in this case, it was EXACTLY what Barnum needed to hear. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he swallowed his pride and listened.

Yes, people have a curiosity about the macabre, but they aren’t willing to pay to see dead, stuffed, or wax representations. To see a live oddity is what the people wanted. That is what people were willing to pay to see.

But how do you find the people who have been hiding from the world?

“Luckily” Barum found his first opportunity at the bank. Charles accompanied his mother to the bank while seeking a loan.  Barnum tracked them down and presented his concept to the young boy. However, Charles clearly had reservations regarding this new venture. Because of his previous experience with people, he wasn’t comfortable putting himself out there to confront the laughter of a cruel public.

Barnum, seeing this objection, tried reasoning with Charles by saying the people are laughing anyway, might as well get paid.

This seems like perfectly reasonable logic, however, the money wasn’t enough to motivate Charles. Barnum used what motivates himself to attempt to get Charles to agree to the vision.  Without taking into consideration what may actually fulfill Charles’ needs, he wasn’t motivated by money and retreated, closing the door.

This is where Barnum’s Brilliance really kicked in. He realized that Charles had goals and dreams, taking notice of the tin soldier on the ground. Changing his offer, Barnum offered to make Charles a General, respected and revered. I believe this was something that Charles may have realized he could never achieve on his own, but Barnum was offering the next best thing.

And it worked.

Barnum had identified a core need for all of his audiences now. For the performers, he offered them a path to acceptance and inclusivity. For his patrons, he offered a way to satisfy their natural curiosities in a way they would be willing to pay for.

It is your responsibility as a business owner to ensure your product satisfies an actual need rather than a perceived need for your clients. It’s also important to ensure your marketing efforts connect the client’s needs to the solution that works for them. You need to know what motivates someone to make a purchase and explain that to them in the language and channels they reside in.

The movie minimized the kinds of targeted testing required to hone in on these audiences, but the benefit of learning who your audience is, and what motivates them to want to buy, is the catalyst between success and failure.


Barnum had to go big or go home.

Let’s not minimize the efforts on the part of Barnum to get to this point. It’s not easy to take an internal look and be willing to adjust your product and message from what you perceive the people want, then make the changes according to what the people want.

But now Barnum knows his product is good, and by extension, he knows his message is good. What are the next steps?

Remember before how we discussed his method of handing out fliers one by one?

How much more effective would these gorilla marketing efforts be, now that he’s modified his product and message?

I personally believe he would find more people willing to break the social norms and come to see his show, but that success would be limited to the people he could reach personally. If he could reach 100 people in a day and only 8% would be willing to break their social norms, only 8 people would come to see the show. With his new product and marketing message, he needed to change his marketing strategy.

And just like that, Barnum provided posters for shop windows, message boards, and the sides of buildings. He put ads on the sides of carriages and on milk bottles, allowing him to expand his audiences from let’s say 100 to 10,000 people. If at 10,000 people only 8% decided to take him up on the offer, he now has a pool of 800 people who would come see the show!

Barnum Automated his ads distribution through established delivery methods. Carriages travel the same streets people walked on, Milk bottles enter the homes of not only the rich but the middle class and poor.  Every single person has some degree of curiosity, but instead of trying to reach each person one by one through flyers, Barnum started getting his message out to them in the places they live, travel, and recreate.

I’m sure it wasn’t cheap to buy all of the materials for distribution, and I’m unsure about what the conversion rate of mid-1800s currency value to the current dollar is, but with careful planning and research, those dollars returned—and in much larger numbers.

If you knew you could spend $1 and get $4 back, how many dollars would you spend, to begin with?


When people think about marketing as a whole, it’s easy to think about the social ad being great or the offer being on-point. However, the truth is, the item, offer, ad, and distribution need to be tested, honed in, then scaled. Once proof of concept is established, then it’s time to go big or go home.

When your message and marketing are well-crafted and honed in, your company becomes profitable.

In Conclusion

There seems to be a notion that because you’re a business owner, you should be good at everything. The reality is, you are good at what you do. The challenge is knowing when to hire out aspects of your business so that you can focus on what you do and allow others to focus on what they do.

Barnum tried doing everything (even with the help of friends and family), but ultimately struggled. When he understood he couldn’t do everything, focused on his product, was willing to adjust, and decided to go big, he became the xerox of the circus world. He set the standard for circus entertainment.

Are you ready to take your marketing to the next level?


Contact REVITY Marketing Agency

Speak to a REVITY Marketing Agency representative about how we can personalize a marketing plan for you and your business and help you get your show on the road.

Picture of Chris d'Argy

Chris d'Argy

About Me

Recent Posts

Follow Us

To Learn More About What The Greatest Showman Teaches About Marketing Fill Out This Form

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.