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Marketers Study Nuances to Reach a Valued Audience

As toll-free telephone numbers go, something like 1-800-FLY-4444 might seem a fine fit for an airline.

But in the small but growing Asian-American consumer market, “the number four is bad,” said Eliot Kang, president of Kang & Lee Advertising in New York, because it implies death in various Asian cultures.

Airline executives “didn’t think anything of using that number,” said Mr. Kang, recalling that an airline did briefly use such a phone number years ago. “But it would be like having the number 1-800-FRIDAY-THE-13TH in English.

Such are the difficulties in aiming sales pitches at the estimated 11 million Americans of Asian ancestry.

Those problems, principally involving language and cultural barriers, can lead advertisers astray in embarrassing ways that most have already learned to avoid in courting the larger African-American and Hispanic markets.

That is why mainstream marketers have hesitated until recently to enter a niche that they might otherwise have seen years ago as the most desirable of the nation’s demographic markets.

After all, according to federal census and industry data, Asian-Americans not only make up the fastest-growing population group, they are generally the most affluent, best-educated and most likely to hold technology jobs. They outspend other ethnic groups, on average, in important categories like computers, insurance and international long-distance telephone calls.

Those numbers help explain why Asian-Americans have become increasingly appealing to advertisers, as the mass market continues to be fragmented by forces that include the increase in nontraditional families and the rise of segmented media like cable television and special interest magazines. So-called diversity marketing – pursuing customers based on differentiations like race, language preference, sexual orientation and age – has become a lucrative strategy for mainstream advertisers.

Suddenly, on Madison Avenue, Asian-Americans appear to be diversity’s darlings. And with the 2000 census placing a new emphasis on counting and profiling Asian-American s, ad industry executives expect the focus on that demographic group to become more intense in coming years.

But, as suggested by the way that airline stumbled over the number four, advertisers seeking a foothold among Asian-American consumers know they face challenges that daunt all but a hardy handful.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Mr. Kang, whose agency, a unit of Young & Rubicam, is considered the largest full-service specialist in the Asian-American market.

“It’s not about doing the right thing, it’s about doing the smart thing,” he added. “But there is some discomfort.”

The significant differences among the ethnicities that compose the Asian-American population require marketers to spend additional time and money to communicate with a group that is relatively small – 4 percent of the total United States population – and at the same time highly fractionated.

“There’s a tremendous amount of confusion,” said Bill Imada, president and chief executive at the Imada Wong Communications Group in Los Angeles, an Asian-American specialty agency that is 49 percent owned by True North Communications.

“Companies are fearful that if they get into the market, they could make a mistake,” Mr. Imada added, “even though consumers tell us they appreciate the attempts to touch them, even if there are mistakes.”

There’s another reason why those barriers to entry are not easy to skirt.

“Frankly, many marketers really don’t think about this market because they don’t have many Asian-Americans on their staffs,” said Alfred L. Schreiber, president at Diversity Business Imperatives in New York, a consulting company he recently formed with Wesley, Brown & Bartle, an executive recruitment firm.

“That lack of representation in corporate America puts this group at a disadvantage,” he added.

That is compounded by the unavailability of data like TV ratings to help guide ad spending and placement decisions for the market, which is still not large enough to be tracked by number-takers like Nielsen. And some personal attitudes among ad and marketing executives about Asian-Americans remain problematic, defeating efforts to persuade advertiser to consider the market.

“We’ve bumped into stereotypes,” said Michael J. Sherman, general manager of KTSF in San Francisco. The television station, owned by the Lincoln Broadcasting Company, runs programming aimed at a dozen ethnic groups including Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese.

“Once we went to an agency that represents one of the two major supermarket chains in the Bay Area,” Mr. Sherman added, “and we were told, 'When your viewers go shopping, they head to Chinatown to buy a chicken on a string.’”

“These consumers are pretty much like other consumers," said Mr. Sherman, whose station has sponsored surveys to help dispel misimpressions. "But with different cultures, with different languages and different values, it’s a little difficult for advertisers to get their arms around.”

Why not address the market in English?

Studies indicate Asian-Americans want to be marketed to in our own languages,” said Wanla Cheng, principal in the Asia Link Consulting Group in New York, because that is perceived as “a sign an American company respects us, values us and wants our business.” Indeed, by some estimates, two-thirds of the people in the market are what’s known as language preferent, meaning they would rather speak in their own language at home.

Advertisers making the extensive efforts to tailor sales messages to the market say it has paid off. For example, The New York Times ran its first sustained non-English campaign last year, aimed at Chinese-Americans.

“We had to do a lot of work to build an infrastructure,” said Alyse Myers, vice president for marketing services at The Times. The measures included changing the colors of vending machines in the Chinatown section of Manhattan from blue, their standard color, to red. The reason, Ms. Myers said, was that “blue is considered the language of mourning.”

The campaign, which included print ads, commercials, direct mail and community events, was deemed successful enough to be expanded beyond New York to San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley in California, Ms. Myers said. There will also be campaigns addressed to New Yorkers of Korean and South Asian descent.

“The different languages and cultures for each segment bring levels of complexity, difficulty and expense,” said Lynette Pinto, director for multicultural marketing communications at AT&T Consumer Services in Basking Ridge, N.J. “But if it’s done well, it can provide strong returns.”

AT&T concentrates on marketing in seven languages to Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants from six countries: China (in the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects), India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam.

But “you have to be very careful,” Ms. Pinto said, offering the example of AT&T’s so called dial-around discount long-distance telephone service, initially introduced in the general market as the Lucky Dog Phone Company.

“In the Asian market, we needed to adapt it,” she added. “’Lucky Dog’ was idiomatic English and did not translate in language.” Asian-Americans were invited to try the service under the access code, 10-10-345.

Those wading into the market point approvingly to a lengthening list of blue-chip marketers that are joining them. Others include Apple Computer, Hallmark Cards, MCI WorldCom, Charles Schwab & Company, the Seagram Company and the Sprint Corporation.

“We recognize that America is evolving and we have to respond accordingly,” said Gilbert Davila, vice president for multicultural and relationship marketing at Sears, Roebuck & Company in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Sears has intensified efforts aimed at Asian-Americans that range from posting store signs in languages like Vietnamese, to giving away Lunar New Year calendars.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to capture a new customer,” Mr. Davila added. “We feel we have an edge over our competition.”

Attempts to provide advertisers with data about Asian-American consumers are being stepped up, led by a new organization named the Association of Asian-American Advertising Agencies.

“This market is hungry for information, hungry for advertising and responsive to it,” said Shelley Yamane, a member of the association board who is also vice president for strategic services at Muse Cordero Chen & Partners in Los Angeles, an agency owned by Muse Creative Holdings that specializes in multicultural marketing. “We’re hoping the census will establish the market.”

The decennial federal census for 2000 is now getting under way across the country, with the data expected to be released in 2002.

“The community was not organized” for the 1990 census, said Mr. Imada of Imada Wong, referring to Asian-Americans. “But we are this time around, and fully behind getting an accurate count.”

“As soon as the information is released,” he added, “the growth from companies jumping into the marketplace will be significant.” The Chevron Corporation, an Imada Wong client, donated $50,000 to produce public service announcements in 12 languages encouraging cooperation with the census.

“The Asian-American population is certainly getting a lot of attention from us,” said Kenneth Prewitt, director for the United States Census Bureau in Suitland, Md. “There’s simply no comparison to anything we’ve ever done before.”

For the first time, the census questionnaire will come in fours Asian languages in addition to English and Spanish, Mr. Prewitt said. Census employees speaking those languages – Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese – will be staffing telephone assistance centers.

And 13 percent of the estimated $165 million that the bureau plans to spend on a paid advertising, marketing and research campaign to stimulate census participation will be aimed at Asian-Americans, Mr. Prewitt said, “quite a bit higher than their 4 percent share of the population.”

Executives at agencies specializing in the market expect the more detailed data from the 2000 census to draw advertisers in big categories like drugs, entertainment, health care, packaged food and travel.

“We already have test buys from Gap and other consumer product companies,” said Hurst Lin, “and we’re carefully watching the click-through rate results.” Mr. Lin is vice president for business development and United States general manager at Sina.com in Sunnyvale, Calif., which operates four Web sites in Chinese.

“As time goes by,” Mr. Lin added, “we’ll have to do less and less convincing.”

Or as Mr. Kang of Kang & Lee put it: “The Asian-American market is like an oil change. You could put it off, but eventually you have to do it.”


Stuart Elliott, March 6, 2000, The New York Times

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times Inc. All rights reserved.