Talk about a multibrand juggling act: As CMO of Feld Entertainment, the world’s largest producer of live family entertainment, Vicki Silver leads marketing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney On Ice, Disney Live!, and Feld Motor Sports. She is responsible for the brand teams, marketing services, international marketing, online marketing and social media, and relationship marketing.
Silver joined the family-run company in 2001 as director of customer relationship management. She came from Black & Decker HHI, along with a consumer goods marketing and analytics background. “Over the course of the next two years, I added market research, bringing the consumer’s voice to the table,” she said in an exclusive interview with CMO.com.
Silver was named CMO in 2009, at first only for Feld Entertainment’s domestic business, but 18 months ago the role became global. Among the topics she discussed with CMO.com contributor writer Keith Loria: how her position has evolved, the role social media has played in improving the brand’s reach, customer-retention challenges, and corporate social responsibility.
Q: With more than a decade working for Feld Entertainment, what keeps you interested in your position?
Silver: The short answer is that you can’t get tired of bringing joy to millions of children and families. The longer answer is my role has changed quite a few times over the years. There is always something new to learn, and I feel like I am both a student of the business and a teacher of the business, even after all these years. With the business growing and the portfolio expanding and all of the changes in the marketing world, you can’t help but be challenged.
Q: With a brand as old as Ringling Bros., how do you keep people coming back to the show year after year?
Silver: The circus remains the No. 1 family event that parents are interested in taking their children to. In 2011 we invested in extensive consumer research, and now we’re putting that learning to action. What we found was that our communication strategy should be segmented. The brand attributes that will motivate a new customer are different than those that will resonate with a repeat customer. Tactically, what that translates to is our general market advertising will focus on new customer acquisition; for winning repeat business, we have a robust database marketing program that draw attention to Feld Entertainment’s investment in new circus productions every year. We highlight new features, new acts, and a new storyline. The general ads are less about what is new, per se, and more about the overall thrills and excitement of the circus.
Q: What impact did the economic downturn have on your marketing approach?
Silver: When the economy started to go softer and families began to feel the pain, the term “staycation” became prevalent. What that translated to for live family entertainment was actually a bit of a growth spurt. If they gave up a family vacation, they were looking for something local to do. There was a counterbalance to that upside, and that was price sensitivity. We addressed that with surgical strategic pricing. We also highlighted value-added experiences, where we promoted not just the show, but also the animal open house before the show and the all-access preshow where guests can go down to floor and interact with performers.
Q: What are your other main challenges of the job?
Silver: Our brands are very recognizable global brands, but each one is only an event in a market for one night for a family. One of our objectives is to be more relevant the other days of the year. Social media has been a big tool to help us get there.
Q: What is the social media strategy for the company?
Silver: Five years ago, a connection was made between a VP of sales and a company specializing in mommy blogging. We pursued a project of building relationships with local mommy bloggers for several years, and they continue today. That was our first step into social media. Fast-forward to Facebook and Twitter, and all our brands have a presence. We have a social media group that supports all brands. Each brand has its own strategic imperative. Super Cross is a competitive sport, so the information in real time is paramount. On the other end of spectrum, for pure entertainment brands like Disney On Ice, social media gives Feld a two-way communication platform for us to extend the brand experience beyond a single event. It helps tell our brand stories, and those of the performers, the athletes, and the heroes behind them.
Q: How does Ringling Brothers integrate its digital marketing campaigns with traditional campaigns?
Silver: The traditional methods haven’t gone away. We still buy TV, radio, outdoor—but we are having good success with digital marketing campaigns because technology allows you to do so much that is targeted and measurable. One of the things every marketer looks for are ways to reduce waste. We use pixel tags to track if someone has seen one of our ads or visited the brand Web site, and we partner with ticket agencies to track activity through conversion. If you didn’t make a purchase, sometime in the near future we would serve you up another advertisement. If you raised your hand as a customer in some way, we want to reach back out and serve you new creative to try and close the deal.
How Silver ensures Feld stays on the cutting edge.
Q: So much has changed in the world of marketing. How do you adapt to the changes and be on the ground floor of the latest and greatest?
Silver: The atmosphere at Feld is a learning atmosphere, and every engagement gives us the chance to try something new and learn. To that end, there are 700 laboratory environments we can play with. We have 90 type-A personality promoters who live to grow their business. The desire to constantly test and learn things is infused in the personality of the company. I might get 15 phone calls a week from people who want to introduce you to their product, and we invite a lot of those people in to talk to us because we want to hear what is new. You never know when a new idea is going to be a great fit for our company.
Q: What changes have you brought to Ringling Bros.’ marketing efforts and how has the brand grown thanks to your efforts?
Silver: My background was in consumer goods marketing, and analytics received a lot more emphasis than it did in entertainment. Back in 2001, understanding each market we played in was limited to instinct and history, which are both tremendously important but there is a vacuum of actionable information and consumer insights. Through database analytics, we have put together an ongoing process to assess every market, understanding the results down to ZIP codes—looking at where sales are coming from, opportunity gaps, and insights about the customer. Today our promoters use this information as a starting point for their local marketing plans. It has had a great effect on our targeted efforts.
Q: Let’s talk globally. What are some initiatives that have been successful overseas?
Silver: Our success internationally is our approach to working in different countries. We address cultural differences by adapting our marketing and our shows to each country that we play. We recently launched a new production in Turkey, and what makes this very different than the others is that the entire production was developed in Turkey. We hired Turkish talents, designers, manufactured costumes, and hired local crew—everything needed for a production. We expect that country pride felt by the Turkish people will do great things for this business.
Q: How do you measure the effectiveness of your branding efforts?
Silver: When [executive VP] Nicole Feld made changes in 2005 [to make it more contemporary], the foundation of changes came from research. We dug deep into acquiring consumer insights in very innovative ways. We worked with Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Masters Program, and one of the main takeaways was consumers’ desire for an immersive experience—not what’s happening in front of me, but what’s happening to me as a guest of the show. From there, changes to the productions and communication strategies were made. Every year we measure the key attributes for brand health, appeal, interest in attending, and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.
Q: Which of Ringling Bros.’ marketing innovations are you most proud?
Silver: One of the things we are passionate about is leaving a positive imprint on a community. We have more than just our events and shows. We have three programs associated with Ringling Bros.: Reading with Ringling, CircusWorks, and CircusFit. The first two are educational initiatives through schools and libraries and downloadable lessons. The third is a way to infuse fun into fitness and has been endorsed by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. They are our way of having a lasting, positive influence.
Q: What would people be most surprised to learn about what you do in your role as CMO?
Silver: For six weeks—the greatest of the year—my office is a single-wide trailer in Tampa, Fla., that I share with 10 other marketers. My desk is a folding table, I have a folding chair, and this is where the magic happens and where the Feld Family brings their vision to life. What makes it incredible is I get to know new performers and have the opportunity to see all acts without costumes, makeup, lighting, and I witness the pure athleticism and talent they bring. It’s inspirational and the perfect environment for creating the marketing campaign.