This weekend, just three weeks into its run, Warner Bros. Discovery revealed that its blockbuster film Barbie has topped US$1 billion in box office ticket sales worldwide. The movie clocked US$459 million from theatres in the US and Canada and another US$572.1 million from theatres overseas, according to a statement by Warner Bros. Discovery.
A testament to Barbie's incredible marketing strategy that saw it collaborating with brands, launching huge, 3D activations and more, the movie has certainly gotten Barbie-mania to spread. However, while it may seem like everyone around the globe is buzzing about the fantasy film, a recent study by Milieu Insight revealed that in Singapore, interest levels have not been particularly high.
It was found that 51% of millennials in Singapore, the film's target audience, were not interested in watching the movie.
It was also found in the study, which was conducted from 24 to 26 July, days after the film's release on 21 July, that only four in 10 had seen it or showed interest in catching the film.
In tandem, it was found that amongst the Gen Z group, 63% of respondents had watched the film or wanted to watch it. This group cited curiosity about Barbie's character as a main reason why the wanted to watch the film. 35% of Gen Z respondents also cited the trailer and promotional materials as to why they wanted to watch the movie.
On the other hand, of those who expressed a disinterest in watching the movie, 57% cited a lack of enthusiasm for the Barbie brand or character while one in three stated that they do not consider themselves part of the movie's target audience or that they prefer other movie genres.
The results are certainly surprising considering that at least on social media, everywhere we look, Barbie-mania has been sweeping the world.
However, was enough done to target Singaporeans locally and could more have been done to capitalise on the film's success when it came to generating sales in merchandise and tickets or was it doomed from the start?
Not the Singaporean dream
For a start, it is crucial to note that Barbie may not have had as significant a nostalgic impact for Singaporeans as perhaps millennials in Western countries.
Jian Yang, the managing partner and head of strategy at Distilleri (and a huge fan of Barbie), explained that he believed that Barbie was never really a high-affinity brand in the Singapore market. "Around the globe, there will always be a dominant fashion doll - Barbie in the US, Sindy in the UK, Steffi Love in Germany, Licca-chan in Japan. But in Singapore, we got most, if not all of these brands (plus a new proliferation of other dolls like Rainbow High, Bratz, Blythe and OMG dolls) so few of our girls actually grew up to be ‘Barbie’ girls," he said.
He added that we are also notably a space-constrained country, so we never got the full ‘Dreamhouse experience’ because our young girls tended to collect figures rather than play sets (which were big) - leading to less rich play experiences, and thus lower affinity.
"As a developed market, our kids could have also outgrown Barbie earlier than most girls around the globe due to availability of tech," added Yang. "This means that the years they spent with the brand were shorter than the average girl. This implies that there was less time for them to develop a brand affinity."
True enough, according to Milieu Insight, only 33% of Singaporeans wanted to watch the film as a result of their nostalgic attachment to the childhood doll.
Agreeing with Yang, Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director at long history in Singapore, it hasn't been actively promoted recently and as a result, faced a different competition for share of wallet and share of voice.
"Barbie, being a traditionally more Western brand, might not resonate to the same extent with everyone in the country, especially the millennials and above," he said.
These factors could have led to a relatively low interest level when it came to the Barbie movie in Singapore.
The lack of courage
Saying that, despite the fact that the Barbie movie was already on the losing end in Singapore with it not being a nostalgic brand for many, it certainly could have still capitalised on the modern hype considering how well it was doing on social media particularly with its selfie generator that allowed fans the opportunity to insert pictures of themselves straight into Barbie Land. It was also talked about extensively on social media which certainly could have fueled the hype if there was more follow-up by brands.
"To increase interest and engagement, Singaporean brands could have launched an innovative marketing campaign featuring more innovative elements such as augmented reality experiences and creative use of social media. This approach would have appealed to the tech-savvy population of Singapore, adding a unique and modern twist to the traditional Barbie brand," said Voedisch.
He added that to make the campaign more impactful, it could have been targeted to specific Singaporean demographics, tailoring messages and advertisements that align with the interests and preferences of the local audience. Data-driven insights could have been used to ensure the campaign's relevance to the target audience, potentially boosting interest and brand engagement.
While all this, arguably could have been done by brands, perhaps the reason why it wasn't was a lack of risk-appetite and general courage, suggested Yang. He said:
It’s a larger conversation about our industry rather than just about the Barbie movie, but I always feel that the thing we’re lacking in is courage.
He continued by explaining that all clients are accountable to levels of hierarchies above them, so they project low, so they won’t disappoint.
"More than that, they don’t push the limits. Barbie as a brand (not a doll, not a movie, but a brand) had the opportunity to literally paint the town a Pantone 219C Pink, and throw pink parties, have pink cocktails, throw blowout parties with beautiful people in pink, and harness the collective kitsch of influencers, fans, and curious onlookers. That would have laddered up into a brand presence that would have been truly astounding," Yang said.
It would also have given a richness and robustness to the brand’s narrative, which would have created a halo effect such that even if you loved Barbie or hated her, you’d be curious enough to interact with the brand once again, Yang said. "Ideation wouldn’t have been a problem because I’m sure these marketers and their agencies are competent," he said, adding:
The marketer’s problem would have been the 'who pays for it' question. And I feel no one wanted to step up.
"It was truly disappointing to watch the global success of this movie through my own news channels, then see the dismal local efforts, poor toy availability, unwillingness to try new things, and overall lack of courage by brands in truly embracing this global phenomenon," said Yang.
Agreeing with him, Melissa Yik, country director Singapore at M&C Saatchi Performance noted that the level of experiential marketing in Singapore, as compared to overseas, was lower compared to other markets, with few brands bringing in Barbiecore-commerce products, and the lack of Barbie-themed executions across local brands.
Adding to the idea that local agencies were not bold enough or willing, Ranganathan Somanathamn, co-founder and curator of RSquared Global Ventures said that the risk appetite that fuels innovation is a "bit soft" for brands in Singapore. "The change in positioning of the Barbie brand would have created a few unknowns from brand association and affinity perspective," he said, adding that now that the Barbie movie has captivated the audiences, brands can look to find relevant associations in sync with their own positioning to leverage the opportunity.
A lack of budgets
Another issue could have been that the advertising economy has been slower to recover from Covid-19 deadlines and that with cautiousness still in the air, clients are having to assess which campaigns and movies they should invest behind, suggested Craig Harvey, head of research APAC at IPG Mediabrands.
As marketing dollars are tight in our current recessionary economy, companies could take a leaf out of Starbuck’s books, suggested Kevin Kan, c "Thinking out of the box, smart marketers with limited budgets can leverage the momentum of other large campaigns going on which compliments and provide similar relatable sentiments for consumer engagement," he said.
He brought up the example of Starbuck's Blackpink collection which featured a line of pink and black limited-edition merchandise, noting that it is a great opportunity to ride the wave of the Barbie phenomena. "Whilst not specifically branded for Barbie, it is a smart way of leveraging the budget of another promotion with similar brand affinity. The Starbucks merchandise has the brand elements of pink and glitter that complement the rest of the Barbie campaigns that are currently running without having a huge marketing budget," he said.
Agreeing with him, Cheryl Teng, associate strategy director at VaynerMedia APAC said that despite the issues, it is still not too late for brands who want to jump on the bandwagon, but that they must focus on capturing consumer attention and creatively participating in conversations. "There will always be cynics who assume the movie to be consumerist propaganda," she said, adding: "The real challenge will always be: Can you flip the script and find a way to still relate to them?"
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