Markets Focus: Cracking the Asian Conundrum

Asian-Americans represent a valuable market, but they're not a monolith

Given their high level of education and early-adopter enthusiasm for technology, few groups excite marketers more than young Asian-American males. There's one problem, though: The very phrase "Asian-American" is probably among the most misleading demographic classifications there is.

Most marketers use "Asian-American" as a default descriptor for Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Pacific Islander, and South Asian descent. Yes, some of these groups have similarities in terms of culture and philosophy. But ultimately, when marketers talk about Asian-Americans, they're talking about diverse audiences.

"There's no such thing as a blanket Asian-American strategy," notes Saul Gitlin, executive vice president, strategic services at Kang & Lee Advertising. "There may be opportunities to create a single message or platform for East Asian groups--Chinese and Koreans--but anybody who tries to target Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans with the same campaign is going to end up doing more harm than good."

Adds Vijay Chattha, the "chief talker" at South-Asian-American-focused firm VSC Consulting: "Companies think they can do the same things for East-Asian-Americans and South-Asian-Americans, when there are huge cultural and religious differences."

Apart from these complexities, experts observe that on the whole, Asian-Americans tend to gravitate to the best and newest technologies, and they eagerly share their opinions about everything from movies to personal grooming products. They remain deeply skeptical about marketing, online and off. In other words, they have a lot in common with peers of other ethnicities.

"For this audience, and really for this whole age range, the Internet is their CNN and their playground rolled into one," quips Jeff Yang, Iconoculture's senior director and consumer strategist for Asian and Asian-American markets.

Before specifically targeting Asian-American males, marketers must first address the issue of language preference. Men who arrived in the U.S. during their late teen years generally prefer online content from their home geography in their native tongue. Members of what Gitlin has dubbed "the 1.5 generation"--Asian-Americans who completed more than half of their primary high-school education in the U.S.--tend to be multilingual and multicultural, dividing their time between home-country content and mainstream American online media. Finally, Asian-Americans who have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more gravitate toward mainstream content.

Personal Invitations

Beyond these simple distinctions, pros who have worked on online campaigns aimed at twentysomething men of Asian descent concede that they're not entirely sure what works. "I really thought when I was younger that I had my finger on the pulse. Now I'm not so sure," admits Jon Yokogawa, a member of the integrated marketing team at Asian-market specialist interTrend Communications. "What this business needs is more people in that age range--people who are a little more in touch with the whole underground-culture thing."

Insensitivity can be a problem. Gitlin scolds some mainstream firms for what he calls "unintentional stereotyping" in campaigns, like using images of subservient Japanese women or Indians in saris in front of the Taj Mahal. "I'm not saying that the marketing officer is saying, 'Let's conjure up a negative stereotype.' But somewhere along the line, somebody wanted to create that look and feel," Gitlin explains.

Even more than in general-market campaigns, customization is essential. Experts agree that the worst thing a company can do is take an online pitch originally created for the mass market and translate it into Chinese or another Asian language. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, something important gets lost in translation.

"The program should show that the marketer has taken the trouble to really think about this population," Gitlin says. "It's the difference between delivering a hand-engraved invitation to a party and putting a poster on the wall saying, 'You're invited.' Maybe some minorities will see the poster, but they'll wonder if it was for them."

Yokogawa, whose title at interTrend is "vice president, fan-club management" ("My job is building fans among people," he says), cites the importance of word-of-mouth among this age group. He notes that U.S.-based online communities of Chinese-, Korean- and Vietnamese-Americans in their 20s are close-knit. "My half-brother and his friends, they get recommendations from each other before they'll even look at something. You can't even get past the door without that," Yokogawa notes.

Not in Their Face

Yang, on the other hand, points to the "I love bees" viral campaign preceding the release of the Xbox video game title "Halo 2" as a prime example of how online marketing to this audience should develop. "I don't know if you even consider that marketing, really  the content was that good," he says. In his mind, "I love bees" is clearly more the exception than the rule, especially for a campaign that popped well in advance of the product's debut.

"Early on in the campaign cycle, you don't have to put out your message to the lowest common denominator. If you do, you'll lose the attention of the online opinion-formers most likely to actively evangelize for you," Yang continues. "Your goal might be to get to moms and dads and grandparents, but to get the product out the door and make people aware of it, there's a hard-core, younger audience you have to play to."

Other mistakes range from heralding a 30-second commercial as an "online exclusive" when the target audience is likely to view it as just another ad, to clogging tech or gaming sites with ham-handed promotions for mainstream brands. And then there are the tonal missteps: "A lot of marketers feel that to make an impact and stand out from the pack, they need to be more obnoxious about getting your attention," says Tim Inthirakoth, 22, whose parents arrived in the U.S. from Laos in 1981. "Frankly, it feels kind of disrespectful."

In a big-picture sense, Inthirakoth, an account coordinator with The Castle Group, a Boston-based public relations and event-management firm, feels that online marketers do a good job of communicating with him and his peers. The destinations where ads tend to jump out at him? His college newspaper's Web site, local portals like, Asian-centric venues like, and bloggers like Angry Asian Man.

"It might take more for advertisers to reach my age group, but we're receptive to them if they're respectful and they don't get too aggressive," Inthirakoth explains. "We're on the Web so much, these impressions really stick."

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