Within twelve days of its release, Crazy Rich Asians crossed $80 million in global ticket sales, far surpassing initial forecasts made by industry analysts. The movie’s success has been cast as a triumphant moment for Asian representation in Hollywood. It became the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast to hit the big screen in 25 years and its strong performance has convinced producers to start development on a sequel film.
What can other movies or brands learn from Crazy Rich Asians? It offers three powerful lessons on building a box office hit: (1) create a new “sub-genre,” (2) deeply satisfy narrow customer needs, and (3) lead with an authentic brand purpose. While these strategies may seem intuitive, most studio executives fail to employ them in their decision-making. Those with the courage to adhere to these simple principles are likely to achieve a combination of great storytelling, cultural representation, and financial returns.
When it comes to beating the competition, being unique is more important than being better. Crazy Rich Asians took a distinctive position in the market as the only Hollywood theatrical release to feature an English-speaking, all-Asian cast. Rather than seeing a story about the wealthy minority in tiny Singapore as a weakness, its producers recognized it as a hook that set it apart from competitors.
David Aaker, the vice-chairman of brand consultancy Prophet, coined the term “sub-category competition” to define brands that are so different that they become categories of their own. He highlighted how Greek yogurt differentiated itself from its thin-textured and sugary competitors with its thicker texture and higher protein content. In less than ten years, Greek yogurt grew its market share from 1% to over half of the entire yogurt category. Aaker argued that customers shopping for yogurt weren’t comparing Greek yogurt to regular yogurt brands; Greek yogurt simply became a thing of its own. Companies such as Chobani recognized the uniqueness of Greek yogurt, positioned themselves as first-movers, and reaped the lion share of growth.
In this context, Crazy Rich Asians is like the Greek yogurt of movies. It’s a “sub-category” or a “sub-genre” – something that carves out an enclave within a category due to its unique value proposition. Other successful “sub-genre” films – which create distinct worlds of their own – include Marvel flicks, as well as films by Quentin Tarantino, Tyler Perry, and Wes Anderson. Similarly, the world of Asian super-wealth and the internationalized Asian cast are product attributes that make Crazy Rich Asians incomparable to anything else on the market.
The best way to dominate any competition is to pick a battlefield with zero competitors. The key to achieving breakthrough growth is to create a sub-genre. The Crazy Rich Asians producers saw the whitespace and advantages of being the first to market with a unique product. By leveraging diversity in race, culture or world view, executives can build an inherent competitive advantage.
As Rolls Royce once proclaimed, “Unique has no rival.”
Another powerful lesson for executives is cutting past “gut” instincts and listening to customers to understand their real beliefs and needs.
Since its inception, Hollywood made most of its movies for white male audiences under the premise that the largest audience demographic would also be the most profitable. They assumed that most Americans prefer movies with protagonists that reflect their race and gender identity. In reality, minorities and women remain the most frequent movie goers, even though white males make up over 70% of all on-screen protagonists.
The producers of Crazy Rich Asians analyzed the novel’s readership before moving ahead with the film. They found that most early fans of the novel were white females in their 20s and 30s. “Young white women were quick to pick up the book,” says Jennifer Jackson, a senior editor at the publisher Penguin Random House. “The fashion, the food, and the love story made it an escapist pleasure read that really transcended race.” With insights from understanding the readers, the Crazy Rich Asians producers knew that a movie adaptation would have broad appeal.
Crazy Rich Asians became a commercial success by heavily targeting the Asian-American community without losing its mainstream draw as a romantic comedy. It highlights a common Hollywood blindspot that making a small group of people extremely happy is significantly more valuable than making a large group of people mildly content.
In the field of consumer insights, a net promoter score (NPS) is used to reflect the likelihood that a customer will advocate, detract or act passively when discussing a brand. For a customer to champion a brand, she must score a 9 or 10 (out of a 10-point scale). To reap the benefits of positive “word of mouth” marketing, a brand must be seen as extremely good by consumers to promote it within their social networks.
Creating a movie for the “narrow” Asian-American segment became a winning move. After years of being neglected by Hollywood, the group turned out strongly for a film that resonated with their personal experiences. In the opening weekend, 40% of the audience were Asian-Americans. Many transformed into strong 9s and 10s promoters, even buying out entire theaters and giving tickets away for free with the #GoldOpen movement.
True fans are the most effective brand advocates and “word of mouth” remains the best form of advertising. Executives should listen more to customers and win by starting from a narrow segment.
Crazy Rich Asians’ stood out with its clear brand purpose, which is a company or product’s “reason to exist.” Beyond simply promoting Asian representation in movies, the movie positioned itself as a call to action to reshape how Hollywood works.
Its producers lived and breathed this purpose, starting with a difficult decision to turn down a “gigantic payday” at Netflix so that they could bring diversity to the theater screens. As the book author Kevin Kwan described to The Hollywood Reporter, “Jon [movie director] and I both felt this sense of purpose. We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button.”
Crazy Rich Asians led with purpose, and it encouraged viewers from all identities to join the movement to show Hollywood that diverse storytelling is not only in demand, but refreshingly great. Many wanted the movie to succeed for a greater purpose and publicly expressed their support, generating significant buzz on social media platforms. It became the most tweeted-about movie in August, including 350,000 tweets alone over its opening weekend.
Consumers want to answer a call to action and root for a team. By defining an authentic brand purpose that goes beyond profits, as brands such as Warby Parker and IKEA have done, executives can create companies and products that truly excite their customers.
After the success of Crazy Rich Asians, some Hollywood studios are likely to create copycat products. However, this will not work. Slumdog Millionaire earned almost $400 million at the box office, whereas Million Dollar Arm, an aspirational tale of two starry-eyed Indian baseball players, took in a mere $39 million.
The key is to copy the brand strategy, not the product. Crazy Rich Asians has shown that the formula is to be one of a kind, highly targeted, and socially purposeful. The beauty of this formula is that consumers will enjoy a refreshingly different product each time.
Republished from Forbes. August 27, 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidyin/2018/08/27/how-crazy-rich-asians-nailed-brand-strategy-and-became-a-box-office-hit/#3057913f4438