Five Lessons Local Retailers Can Learn from the Musical Hamilton

To be clear, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton. I do, however, have a somewhat, uh, obsessive relationship with the soundtrack.  And like anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the past few years, I am familiar with its place as a phenomenon not just on the Broadway stage but as an American cultural game changer.

I was listening to the music today and it occurred to me that there are a lot of lessons independent retailers can take from the show, it’s creator and it success -- as they create their own game changer – a retail renaissance.

Lesson # 1
Humanity makes the difference

In retail, we have plenty of choices – brick and mortar, online, local, chain, specialty.  There are hundreds of ways to purchase goods.  Similarly, there are any number of books about Alexander Hamilton available should you care to brush up on some history.

So how did the Broadway show take history off the page and create a larger than life experience?


By giving Hamilton depth and personality, the show connected audiences with a person and a moment in history even if – and here’s the real beauty of it -  they didn’t particularly care about the subject matter.

The same goes for successful retail.  The four walls of a store aren’t much different from the pages of the book or the competition, for that matter.  But even if those walls are filled with the most interesting and original items for sale, success will be elusive unless you create an emotional connection with your audience.

And the connection needs to take place across the spectrum of goods sold, from the luxurious and innovative to the seriously mundane.  The same way Hamilton lifted a seemingly dry character from the pages of history, smart retailers and marketers are understanding that you can (and must) make even the ordinary appealing. Yes, even a screwdriver can be special if you understand the buyer will be using it to hang a baby picture in their first home.  

Retail, done with humanity, can become a moment in someone’s own personal history.  

Lesson #2
Speak the same language as your customer

Lin- Manuel Miranda, the celebrated creator of Hamilton, chose to tell the story by using the musical language of rap. By doing so, he elevated not just the story but the way it was told. That language resonated with many.

Yet in brick and mortar retail we are trying to get new customers but still, by and large, talking the old-fashioned way. Asking the same old questions (“Are you looking for something special?”). Using the same old displays and traditional store layouts. Trying to attract customers with the same stale promotions.

Consumers tell us every day through their actions that they want new ways to communicate. Whether it be more information available online for research, richer in-store experiences, new technology to enhance the sale… we need to elevate our stories in ways that today’s consumer can hear and understand.

Lesson #3
It takes a team to build a brand

A Broadway show is a business that requires a large investment of cash, big marketing dollars and a renowned cast to keep seats full. Even though Hamilton is the central character, his story is told through the voices and experiences of those around him. And although Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star of the show, might have absorbed much of the spotlight, his ensemble cast was so carefully crafted that when he, and other members of the founding cast left, tickets still remained at premium prices and difficult to get. The show did not rely on a single star for it’s luster but rather, built a solid brand through its teamwork.

The same theory holds true for a local retail operation. Small shops often work lean, reliant on the owner or a single superstar sales person to function. There’s no cross training, no bench – no understudy. And when the day comes a key person leaves and the experience deteriorates along with the brand. Tomorrow’s retailer will need to create incentive programs, meaningful training programs and long-term career paths to build strong teams, healthy businesses and enduring brands.

Lesson # 4
Build your tribe (s)

This is where Hamilton enters phenomena territory. And where only the most successful retailers will ever emerge.

Most retail, even the most successful, generally relies on a core, targeted audience. And quite frankly, niching down to scale up is a solid strategy.

But Hamilton has been able to appeal to the broadest possible audiences through a series of well-defined niches.  Had the rap musical relied strictly on Broadway regulars, it might have been less successful. But Hamilton was able to appeal to multiple niches and provide an equally meaningful experience to all.

Here are just a few:
   Broadway lovers
   History lovers
   History lovers who don’t know rap
   People who like rap but didn’t care about the show’s subject
   People who like being on the cutting edge of what’s cool and hip

The depth of their appeal is staggering!

Small shops may never achieve such mass appeal; it’s not their job. But the more well-defined niches they can serve and serve well, the stronger their business will be.

Lesson #5
Create indisputable value

To bottom line it, Hamilton tells people a story they didn’t know they wanted to hear in a way they never expected to hear it. And people demanded to be associated with it not just because they enjoyed it, but because it made them appear to be hip and cultured!  That’s an awful lot to deliver for the price of a ticket!

But that’s exactly what Hamilton did. The show created such value in the minds of the consumer that objections to the ticket price – even the sky high premium prices --didn’t even enter the discussion. That’s the gold standard in Broadway – and retail!