Opinion

Singapore Airlines missed the chance of a lifetime by failing to make it into Crazy Rich Asians

While Changi Airport and Marina Bay Sands were shown in their full glory in the movie, Singapore Airlines failed to make it into what was in effect the big-screen marketing opportunity of a lifetime for the brand – writes Nick Foley of Landor

One of my colleagues in New York recently asked me if I had flown Pacific Asean Airlines and whether I would recommend them. I had to stop and think where I had seen that brand before. My first reaction was to advise my colleague he was mistaken and that the airline in question was actually Asiana Airlines.

Then it hit me as I recalled sitting in my local cinema at I12 Katong watching the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians a couple of weeks before. The recollection was not a positive one due to the adverse reaction I observed from those seated around me to the Pacific Asean Airlines plane pulling up at Changi’s terminal three.

In Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, the main character Nick Young invites his girlfriend, Rachael Chu, to fly with him from New York to his family home in Singapore. Being a loyal Singaporean, in the book Nick chooses to fly Singapore Airlines.

Due to his family’s dynastic wealth, Nick books Singapore Airlines suites for the trip. Oddly enough, the movie deviates awkwardly from the book with the two leading characters flying on a generic airline that doesn’t actually exist.

The gasp from the audience at my local cinema was palpable, as Nick and Rachael’s arrival at Changi Airport came up on the big screen. While the audience expected to see a white A380 sidling up to gate A5, nobody expected to see anything other than the super jumbo adorned in the familiar blue and gold livery of SIA – with the stately gold Kris emblazoned on its tailfin. ‘Tut-tuts’ and ‘oh nos’ ran through the audience like a veritable tsunami.

It is reasonable to suggest the movie is the best two-hour advertisement Singapore has ever had. Savvy, witty, engaging and stylishly produced. There can be little doubt that Jon M. Chu’s romantic comedy, set in the city state, has it all.

Encouragingly, a number of iconic Singapore brands appear in the movie. As the couple walk through the spacious arrival hall of Changi Airport, it’s clear why it is the best airport in the world. Marina Bay Sands too provides a stunning backdrop as the couple approach the city in Nick’s friend’s open top Land Rover. And, when love takes a wrong turn a gleaming, bright, blue, Comfort Cab is there to swiftly take Rachael back to the airport.

So, if Crazy Rich Asians was good enough for some of Singapore’s most iconic brands, why wasn’t it good enough for Singapore Airlines? We might never know the real story.

But when big name brands refuse a cameo in a movie there are typically only two explanations. Firstly, the producers want a not insubstantial fee to depict the said brand in their production. The producers of James Bond films have this approach down to a fine art.

Alternatively, if the owners of a brand feel that a movie does not align with the values of their brand then the offer to depict their brand is not accepted. A number of different reports have now surfaced implying that the custodians of the Singapore Airlines brand declined the opportunity to feature one of their world-class A380s in the movie.

If the reports are correct and senior management at the airline really did say ‘no’, then one could be excused for thinking the airline just looked the gift horse of the century in the mouth. Worldwide box office revenue for Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson’s delightful production of Kwan’s novel depicting romance in the island nation has just pushed through the US$230 million mark. Most companies would be clambering over one another to get their brand featured in such a hit.

It is the type of free publicity that most marketers can only dream of. Indeed, one of SIA’s key competitors – Qantas – recently worked diligently behind the scenes to ensure Australia’s national carrier secured a brief cameo in the trilogy for the Crocodile Dundee series.

Although, as it turned out, Crocodile Dundee 3 was a witty hoax, with the all the hype being nothing more than a clever decoy for the latest commercial for Tourism Australia. Regardless, Qantas benefitted handsomely from the free significant publicity the spoof generated.

Perhaps the link that can be drawn from the contrasting approaches from Qantas and Singapore Airlines respective marketing teams is this. One team calculated the risk was worth taking while the other defaulted to risk avoidance – although it still remains unclear just where the risk in Crazy Rich Asians lay and whether it was SIA or the producers that eventually said ‘no’. 

Evidently, Qantas faced a real risk. A lot of people believed Paul Hogan really was coming back to star as the audacious reptile hunter in the croc-infested waters of Australia’s far north. When it turned out to be nothing more than a hoax aired to millions at the 2018 Super Bowl, the downside for Qantas could have been substantial.

The final intriguing aspect to the absence of a genuine airline in Singapore’s biggest box office hit is that at around the time Crazy Rich Asians was being released, Singapore Airlines was preparing to resume the world’s longest flight between Singapore and – you guessed it – New York.

One doesn’t need to hold a degree in public relations to understand just how much the synergy from these two events could have been leveraged to the airline’s benefit. Since Crazy Rich Asians best-selling novel status, Kevin Kwan has gone on to author two more books. China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems. In the event these books are made into movies and an airline is featured, I truly hope Singapore Airlines reconsiders taking on a support role – again, assuming it was the airline’s decision not to participate in part one of the trilogy.

Helping my colleagues in America understand exactly where the thriving metropolis of Singapore is located on a global map is hard enough, without having to explain that you can’t actually catch a Pacific Asean Airlines A380 there.

Foley: SIA missed a chance to be in the best two-hour ad Singapore has ever witnessed

Nick Foley is president of South East Asia-Pacific and Japan at WPP brand consultancy firm Landor

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