South Asians are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population -- but the demo, comprising people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, is the fastest-growing in the U.S. and the most affluent on a per-capita basis.
At a forum on Friday at New York's Time Warner Center, which was sponsored by South Asian TV network Zee TV, a panel comprising an account director at Draftfcb, phone company Vonage's VP marketing, a media analyst with Nielsen, and a Census officer for the New York area held forth on the implications and opportunities for marketers within this segment of the population.
By any measure, South Asians in the U.S. are wealthy and well-educated. Per the network, 40% have a master's or doctorate degree, five times the national average; 77% have a bachelor's degree; one in every nine in the U.S. is a millionaire; 35% of hotels in the U.S. are South Asian-owned, and half of all Travelodge economy hotels are owned by South Asians. Thirty-three percent of Silicon Valley engineers are from the region, and the median household income in the U.S. of South Asians is $91,000 -- double the national average.
Jamal Baksh, partnership and data services specialist for the New York regional office of the U.S. Census, said the demographic has seen "explosive growth," and that South Asians are now the second-largest subset among all Asians, after Chinese.
"A key data point from the American community survey in 2009 is that the educational attainment for South Asians increased 40% versus the rest of the country, and also increased dramatically in terms of higher degrees.
Jackie Bergon, VP of local insights at Nielsen, said South Asians tend to have more than four years of college, are more professionally trained or with managerial roles. "From the perspective of TV viewing, 60% or higher of Indian households are cable, but although they meet educational and income criteria for what we expect in terms of DVR and time-shifted viewing, Asian Indians actually under index, which means they watch most TV live, and that's important news for advertisers," she says.
Leesa Eichberger, VP marketing for Vonage, said South Asians are among the easiest demographic to market to. "They are also easier to sell to because they require less education [about how to install and operate technical products]; they just get it, meaning we can talk about benefits instead of 'how to.' The fact that they have high incomes also makes for instant qualification, and in the case of marketing to them, it's easy to find them because of their media habits." She and other panelists said another critical benefit for marketers is that general market ads in English can be marketed to South Asians. "We can talk to them in English with cultural relevancy," said Eichberger, who added that the company's word-of-mouth "Refer a Friend" effort worked especially well with this demographic group. "It has the highest attributable sales associated with it; it is a very cost-effective way to reach these people. We need TV and direct marketing but we then can focus on a more personal message, and it works."
Said Bhavana Smith, VP and group creative director at Draftfcb, which led the multi-language media outreach for the 2010 Census: "The cost of media is low to reach this community. There's lots of media out there that reaches not just the Asian Indian but the larger South Asian community, and it's inexpensive media." She said that for the Census the agency didn't need to be in national media, but that the focus was in pockets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Florida. "But you don't need to blanket the country to reach this population."
So far, financial services, insurance companies and banks have been the most frequent advertisers to South Asians in the U.S., said Smith, but she adds that some categories have been dabbling, particularly automakers and pharma. "There's huge opportunity for growth through South Asian and Asian markets in general; the buying power of this group is enormous. And the beauty of the market is that you don't have to have custom in-culture, in-language creative. General market creative that is not offensive will suffice."
Eichberger argued that cultural relevance matters more than language since 94% of South Asians speak English and it's the preferred language, three to one. "But we have had great success by advertising in Tenglish, a combination of Tamil -- spoken in Southern India, and the official language of Sri Lanka -- and English. People appreciate the fact that you are using multiple dialects within not just Hindi." As time goes by, one can shift to general marketing on networks like Zee TV, "but try to be focused and culturally relevant."
She added that Vonage is making new ads with all South Asian actors and is expanding efforts in Canada as well, which also has a strong Asian and South Asian population.