Creating a Communications Plan: Marketing Lessons from ‘Hamilton’

The Broadway sensation “Hamilton” has captivated people nationwide since its debut in 2015. The phenomenon has engaged CEOs and teenagers alike. It dominated the Tony Awards in 2016 and set records for Broadway box-office revenue. Even now, as the show begins touring the country, it continues to sell out theaters as fans scramble to get tickets.

Count me in that group. I’m obsessed with the musical. Like millions of fans, I’ve learned every word thanks to countless hours of singing along to the soundtrack. My husband thinks I’m crazy.

An important point, though, is that none of this happened by accident. The success of “Hamilton” stems from the development and implementation of a strong and effective communications strategy. Maybe that’s why it resonates so strongly with me — a communications professional. I can see the work that the musical’s creators put into narrative development and community mobilization, strategies that we often recommend to our clients. For marketers and musicals alike, the right communications plan can make all the difference.

And it clearly worked for “Hamilton.” I could hardly contain myself last month when finally — finally! — after months of waiting, I got to experience “Hamilton” in person. It went beyond my wildest expectations. My family thought I was obsessed before, but this took it to a different level. My 10-year-old daughter cut me off from singing last week, saying, “We get it, Mom. You saw ‘Hamilton.’”

Photo: Megan Madsen at "Hamilton." The show illustrates how an integrated communications plan can drive success.

Megan Madsen, left, with her mom, Maryann Hoff, outside “Hamilton.” The show illustrates how an integrated communications plan can drive success.

The blockbuster success of the musical might come as a surprise to some. After all, the story is set nearly 250 years ago and is essentially a history lesson. The names Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were mostly relegated to the history books — that is until Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by the story, started writing his musical. And not just any musical. Miranda wrote a hip-hop musical that became even more surprising when he combined an American Revolution story with modern music.

Miranda introduced the surprising juxtaposition at a White House poetry jam in 2009: “It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” Miranda told a chuckling crowd that included President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle.

So what’s different about “Hamilton”? Miranda is a brilliant writer who identified an old story ripe with universal truths and conflicts — the backbone of any good story. And he added supremely relevant, modern music that brought the story into today’s world and made it relatable to a modern audience.

I’d also argue that “Hamilton” is successful because the musical is built on a solid foundation of communications tenets. Here are four lessons from “Hamilton” that can strengthen your company’s strategic communications story.

1. A good narrative is vital to your communications strategy.

It has never been more important to own the narrative, whether your challenge is motivating an audience to vote on an issue, developing a brand that sticks out in a sea of sameness or trying to sway public opinion. Owning your narrative, one that truly tells a story, is critical.

Miranda discovered a good narrative in his source material — the biography “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow — and then elevated that story to the next level. Miranda breathed new life into an almost forgotten major player in American history simply by telling his story from a different point of view.

How many schoolchildren over the years have read about Hamilton in a textbook — and how many never remembered his name? The difference came when Miranda told the story of Hamilton and treated it as a story. He developed his characters and made their conflicts and motivations feel relevant today, providing the human and emotional details of the story behind Alexander Hamilton, not just the man and his impact on the founding of our country.

“Young, scrappy and hungry” might not be your narrative, but it doesn’t mean your story should be any less engaging. People remember stories. Just facts? Not so much.

2. Relevancy is key for marketing.

Would this show have been as powerful 30, 50 or 80 years ago? Probably not.

Miranda wrote “Hamilton” in a way that maximized its relevance in today’s world. It’s eerie how many of the storylines from the late 1700s feel directly relevant today: immigration laws, federal vs. state control, party flip-flopping, scandal, contested elections – even spies. But Miranda didn’t stop there. Filling the show with hip-hop music and a diverse cast provides a reason for people who never attended a Broadway show before to stand in line for hours hoping to see it. People see themselves in the show, and it gives them a reason to care.

From the issues that are explored in the show to its musical style and casting decisions, Miranda made Hamilton exceptionally “now.” And that helped a modern audience relate to this centuries-old figure.

In communications, it’s equally critical to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around you and to be relevant to that conversation. Too often, marketers don’t take this piece into account. But it is critical to any effective communications strategy.

3. Build a community and mobilize.

The story is powerful, and the songs are captivating. But those are not the only reasons “Hamilton” turned into a smash hit.

Fans took the concept of a fan base to another level, forming a community that spans all boundaries. The community primarily lives online, and it started with fans simply sharing how they brought “Hamilton” into their daily lives: couples setting their marriage proposals to the show’s tunes; parents posting raps of their children giving “history lessons” at school; families organizing Hamilton-themed birthday parties.

But “Hamilton” fans didn’t just build a community. They mobilized it, turning it into an activated group that is rallying to raise funds and gather supplies in support of hurricane victims, and championing the rights of immigrants. Miranda set up a fundraiser on moveon.org, reached out to the “Hamilton” email community and to date has raised more than $3 million. Moveon.org says it’s the largest amount the group has ever raised from a single email.

Digital channels have made it easier than ever to form these communities, which allow people to become engaged and vested in issues important to them. This is vital to a good communications strategy, too. If you can engage and mobilize your own community, its members become your ambassadors.

4. The sum is greater than the parts.

The live experience of “Hamilton” went beyond my wildest expectations. Yes, there was a powerful story, catchy music, elaborate choreography and expert acting. That’s the case for every show that makes it to Broadway.

But throughout the production of “Hamilton,” Miranda committed to a creative collaboration that made the show blossom into much more than the sum of its parts. He didn’t just write the lyrics and hand them off to someone else to write the score. Miranda put together a team whose players truly fed off each other’s energy. There were no silos, just a team working together toward the show’s common goal.

That’s not to say it was easy or smooth. It’s messy to build a Broadway show — and a communications plan. And neither comes from a linear process. But that collaboration is what leads to the kind of carefully choreographed, unified story that’s at the essence of any good Broadway show — and any good communications plan.

Megan Madsen is Bravo Group's Managing Director of Client Services.