Asian Americans: an untapped gold mine - Asian Americans are more affluent than any other group in America. But marketers - and PR pros - still tend to ignore them. As Kris Oser reports, that’s a mistake

The Asian-American market is a gold mine, say the public relations professionals who tap it. But for most, it is still an untapped treasure.

The Asian-American market is a gold mine, say the public relations professionals who tap it. But for most, it is still an untapped treasure.

The Asian-American market is a gold mine, say the public relations

professionals who tap it. But for most, it is still an untapped


This is odd, because it is the most lucrative and demographically

valuable population in the US according to the Census Bureau. And

although there are only 10.5 million Asian Americans, they are growing

at a faster rate than any other group - by 40.8% between 1990 and 1998,

according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Marketers, including PR pros, are put off by the complexity of the


To start with, the term ’Asian American’ is a misnomer, since people

placed in this category by the US Census Bureau are from 15 unique and

richly diverse cultures and ethnic groups. But firms who specialize in

the market point out that 89% of Asian Americans are from just six

groups, in order of population: Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Asian

Indian, Korean and Vietnamese.

And most are concentrated in a handful of metropolitan areas in

California, New York, Hawaii and Texas.

This is not to say that no mainstream American companies are targeting

Asians. Telecom and financial-services companies have been doing it for

years. But only a handful of others are trickling in: automakers,

packaged goods marketers, healthcare providers and pharmaceutical


That still leaves a wide open field. ’If you look at the Fortune 500,

you can probably count the corporations doing Asian marketing on your

hands and feet. Most doing it are major companies,’ says Bill Imada,

president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Imada Wong Communications Group,

which became part of the multicultural division of True North

Diversified Companies (Chicago) in late December.

Asians are wealthier than any other segment of the population, with a

median household income of dollars 46,637. That’s dollars 6,000 higher

than the next closest group, non-Hispanic whites, says the Census

Bureau. The higher income is due in part to the fact that Asian

Americans have the highest level of education of any group in the


Many companies are simply ignorant of the segment’s value, say PR


For others, the small size of the market is a deterrent. At only 4% of

the population, it is difficult for companies to justify dollars

targeting a swath of Asian Americans.

’There is a de facto pecking order in ethnic marketing,’ says Saul

Gitlin of strategic marketing services at New York-based Kang & Lee

Advertising, a Young & Rubicam company. ’Typically, if you’re doing any

ethnic marketing, you’re doing Hispanic and African American. Only on a

second tier would you go to Asians.’

In addition, few Asian American marketing companies can afford to hang

out a shingle exclusively for PR. Most, like Imada’s firm, either merge

with other types of marketing companies or practice integrated

marketing, including PR. ’It doesn’t make sense to be just a PR or just

an ad firm in ethnic advertising,’ Imada explains. ’It requires full

integration to be successful in these markets.’

As with all ethnic marketing, there are cultural mores to learn and


Research often is scarce. The unfamiliarity of the process scares some

companies off. ’Marketers have said to me, ’I’m just not comfortable

sitting in the back of the room at a focus group and listening to a

translator,’’ reports Andrew Erlich, president of Erlich Transcultural

Consultants in Woodland Hills, CA. ’It’s a refusal to accommodate the

group they are marketing to and they end up not making a buck.’

Eliot Kang, Kang & Lee’s president and CEO, asserts more forthrightly,

’There is prejudice. Companies don’t want to do ethnic marketing.

Companies don’t focus on the 20% or 30% of their revenue that comes from

ethnic minorities.’

And of course, language is a huge issue. Most stories are placed in

media that communicate in the audience’s native tongue.

Jeff Yang, CEO of A. Media and founding editor of A.Magazine, is at the

center of a debate on whether it is necessary to market to Asian

Americans in the languages of their homelands. The decade-old magazine

is in English and appeals to a highly educated 18-to-35-year-old

professional readership, whose parents were born in Asia and who

increasingly find they have more in common with other Americans than

with their relatives overseas. A. is a national publication with a

circulation of 180,000.

’We tend to deal with mainstream PR firms and advertising,’ Yang


’We’d like there to be a partnership between ’in-language’ and

English-only publications. But they (the in-language PR agencies) are

making their money and feeding their kids by translating messages

in-language and in-culture. Maybe they are afraid that companies like

TWA will target marketing to English-speaking Asians and there will be

no place for them.’

But Kang counters that what language you use depends on your


For example, he says, the majority of Japanese under 35 speak fluent

English, but the majority of Chinese under 35 don’t.

Asian Americans on the Internet

Asian Americans have a 64% penetration onto the Internet - a channel

that adds another wrinkle to the language debate. Some say online

messages should be in English because that’s the language of the

Internet, others maintain that many older Asians are logging onto their

kids’ computers to check out newspapers from their home country.

The debate can be seen in two membership-driven Internet community

sites. - a hip, three-year-old site for young professionals and

students - is in English, as are its PR materials. But Click2Asia is

appealing to a demographic slightly older than AsianAvenue’s, and its PR

is not restricted to English.

For Click2Asia, Fleishman-Hillard created a multi-language campaign

called ’Free the Nuts’ - three young marketing staffers have vowed to

live in the company’s Los Angeles office until Click2Asia reaps half a

million members. The three ’nuts’ are filming themselves 24 hours a day

and beaming the footage onto the site. ’It’s very bizarre to watch them

sleeping or brushing their teeth,’ says Atsuko Watanabe, executive vice

president and general manager of Admerasia, the New York-based Web

advertising firm that is executing the campaign.

Press releases announcing the Free the Nuts initiative were sent to

English publications, such as A.Magazine, but also to Chinese, Korean,

Vietnamese, Filipino and Japanese daily newspapers, in-language pop

culture magazines and evening news programs. This makes sense for

Click2Asia because although it is starting with Asian Americans, its

plan is to eventually go after the Asian community worldwide - and the

site itself will be in Asian languages.

On the other hand, AsianAvenue relied on the general media and college

papers to drive membership. For its members, cultural identity - not

language - is the point. ’We think that ethnicity is this incredible

bond,’ explains Betty Haung, marketing director of the web site. ’You

can be interested in cars or music, but you’ll always be Asian. What

sets us apart is the Asian-American identity - not that your family is

from Korea, but that you are an Asian American.’

The shining results unfolding for are an example of how

receptive this market can be. Last fall, the site launched a campaign to

draw attention and members that included a tour to 15 college campuses

to hand out CDs of Asian-American bands. By December, membership had

grown by about 20% - to half a million people. (Chicago-based

Golin/Harris International is the agency of record for Community

Connect, AsianAvenue’s parent company.)

Miramax chose AsianAvenue - whose members have a mean household income

of dollars 58,000 - to tout the opening of the animation spectacular

Princess Mononoke, with a micro-site featuring clips from the movie. At

least 195,000 people saw the promotion.

Experts say that these results are common when initiatives aimed at the

group are done properly. ’As long as it is committed to an integrated,

consistent marketing campaign, every company I know of has reaped a

really good ROI and in most cases, found that with Asian Americans, they

get more bang for their buck,’ maintains Wanla Chang, principal of Asia

Link Consulting Group in New York.

Beyond language, experts say the key to doing Asian-American PR is

understanding the culture and getting into the community through

grass-roots work.

Seven years ago, Fred Teng took over AT&T’s PR initiative to push

long-distance services by establishing an image of the company as a

friend to Asian Americans. He visited media in nine cities, talking up

AT&T’s technology and products.

’We wanted to get away from people just comparing prices,’ he says. ’We

wanted to show the company as something they can rely upon, and

something very close to them. By the seventh city, we were on the front

page of the in-language daily paper because these papers feel very proud

to have a major corporation visit them.’

AT&T sponsored a premier of The Joy Luck Club in San Francisco and gave

the proceeds to the local women’s club. Teng connected several cities

via a video conference during Asian heritage month in 1994. The efforts

resulted in the company increasing its market share by 16% among all

Asian Americans. ’Every year we measured our coverage against Sprint and

MCI, and we always outdid them by 200%,’ recalls Teng, who now runs a

company developing an Internet survey site.

Education tool

The New York Times wants to position itself as a tool for

Chinese-immigrant parents in New York to use to help prepare their

children for higher education.

So in November it sponsored evenings of panelists speaking in Chinese

about how to get into college. The participants included the head of

admissions at Columbia University, a Chinese-American woman who attended

MIT on scholarship and high school guidance counselors. Dozens of

parents showed up.

’It was not a sales event,’ says Gitlin of Kang & Lee, which created the

event. ’We did not have subscription forms there. The Times realizes

this is part of building the relationship with the community. It

recognizes that to get something out you have to give something.’

’These communities don’t always get attention,’ Gitlin explains. ’If you

say, ’I’m here to stay, to provide information, make the new immigrant

feel at home,’ it will build immense loyalty. Particularly for new

category players, if you establish this position, you will have the

advantage over competitors. It conveys tremendous respect.’

In preparing a campaign on behalf of pharmaceutical company Glaxo

Wellcome to educate Chinese consumers about hepatitis B, Hill & Knowlton

is focusing on the fact that this group highly values the opinions of

its community leaders. So the campaign, which is not designed to push a

particular product, will use testimonials from doctors, nurses and

others ’who live and work in the community, as opposed to research

scientists, to emphasize the importance of being screened,’ says Raul

Garza, Hill & Knowlton’s Los Angeles-based director of multicultural


Know the culture

Also important in doing Asian-American PR, of course, is knowing the

publications and their needs, which in this case can mean navigating

cultural issues. For Yang at A.Magazine, it’s PR 101: know your audience

and the medium.

’We tell our writers, ’We do not run stories about Asians

who ... fill-in-the-blank here. Just the mere fact that they are Asians

does not automatically make them of interest,’’ Yang says.

For example, two years ago Sony Music International pitched to

A.Magazine a story about singer Coco Lee, ’who was right on the crest of

pop-diva-dom in Asia,’ Yang recalls. ’But no one had heard of her here.’

Furthermore, Yang says, Sony was pitching her as ’exotic Asia. But we

grew up with exotic Asia’ - A.’s readership was interested in things


Sony pitched the story again, this time stressing that, although Lee was

born in Taiwan, she was raised in California and is about to release her

first CD in the US. The result? Lee is on the cover of A.Magazine’s

February/March issue. ’This was a story about an Asian breaking through

and pioneering for Asian-American performers,’ Yang comments. ’It didn’t

focus on her exotic Asian-ness, but on her American roots.’


More than 90% of Asian-American media is in-language, according to Kang

& Lee’s Gitlin. The major television markets have multiple stations -

the two biggest being KTSF in San Francisco and KTCI in Los Angeles,

which serve a number of Asian groups - and the secondary markets have at

least one or two.

There are several hundred publications for the Asian-American


Many of the newspapers are community papers. But there are probably two

in each ethnic group that are considered to be the top newspapers in the

country. For example, the World Journal and Sing Tao are the leading

dailies for Chinese speakers. Korean speakers read Korea Times and the

Central Daily. All four are US editions of papers published in Asia.

Publications for Indian-Asians and Filipinos are usually in English -

the language those groups are likely to speak at home.

Experts warn that at about half of the newspapers - not the national

dailies, but the community-based ones - editorial and advertising have a

symbiotic relationship, one that doesn’t always respect traditional

boundaries. Advertisers will expect to have their products written


And on the flip side, if a company doesn’t buy an ad, the publication

may write a negative story.

That reality highlights one of the differences in doing Asian-American

PR. At the same time, it underscores the importance of sticking to PR

basics: know your audience and your media. As the pros who are engaged

in targeting Asian-American communities attest, getting it right can be

well worth it.


Bill Imada, President and CEO, Imada Wong Communications Group, Los

Angeles, part of the multicultural division of True North Diversified

Companies, Chicago

Imada was running his own marketing communications firm, specializing in

government and community affairs for the general market in the 1980s,

when Ogilvy & Mather asked him to consult about ethnic marketing for a

client. This led to other ethnic consulting jobs. His first big

contract - with Anheuser-Busch in 1989 - allowed him to found Imada Wong

in 1990.

’Corporate marketers don’t always recognize the importance of building

relationships with Asian-Pacific consumers,’ Imada says. ’As a result of

their thinking, they often allocate a small budget to reach the


They rationalize their decision based on the fact that (the group) only

represents about 4% of the total US population. I counter by saying,

this is true, but these 11 million consumers have a combined spending

power that exceeds dollars 229 billion per annum. There will be 35

million Asian-Pacific Americans in less than 50 years. These numbers are

too important to ignore.’

Eliot Kang, President and CEO, Kang & Lee Advertising, New York, a

member of Young & Rubicam Companies, New York

Kang is considered a godfather of Asian marketing, having been in the

business since 1976. Kang started as a media-buying agent specializing

in real estate for the Asian-American market. Realizing that

Asian-American marketing was an unfilled niche, he formed Kang & Lee in

1995. ’If you go into an area where there are no experts, you have a

good chance of being number one,’ he quips. ’Being Asian gave me

credibility.’ In 1998, the agency merged with Young & Rubicam. Kang

recently founded the Association of Asian-American Advertising


’The biggest reward is it’s not just advertising,’ Kang says of his


’We do a little bit of the role of social activist in redefining or

defining the Asian marketplace. You are representing your parents, aunts

and cousins to corporate America. Most of our clients now talk to us to

make sure the image they create is the right one for the market.’

Fred Teng, President and CEO, Noble Communications Group, New York

Teng learned public relations as a stockbroker for Oppenheimer & Co. in

the 1980s by promoting himself among journalists at Chinese-language

media in New York. He further honed his PR skills by raising money for

nonprofit community-development groups he headed up on a volunteer basis

and by running (unsuccessfully) for a New York City Council seat in


His professional background was impressive enough to persuade AT&T in

1993 that he was the right person for the job of national director of PR

for the Asian-American market. In addition to understanding the

complexities of the Asian market, ’I came with the Rolodex of the media

and experience in dealing with them,’ he says. Teng has now launched his

third career - he runs a company developing an Internet portal called, which will poll people of Chinese descent worldwide on their

consumer and political opinions.

’A major frustration in targeting Asian Americans has been to impress

upon the US corporations that it is such a low cost to reach this

group,’ Teng says. ’It is nothing like the advertising dollars they

spend on other things. If they have to re-shoot a print ad - that could

be the whole PR budget for reaching Asian Americans.’

Atsuko Watanabe, Executive vice president and general manager,

Admerasia, New York

Watanabe is part of the new guard developing the Web as a PR medium for

Asian Americans. She was a senior product manager at Bell Atlantic from

1990 to 1995 as part of the group looking for better penetration of


Reaching into the multicultural market as a way to do so, she says, ’I

felt close to home. I fell in love with the idea of doing multicultural,

Asian niche marketing. But I was lured away by Admerasia and have been

here since 1995.’

Asked how Asian Americans view PR, Watanabe says: ’Word of mouth is

power in the Asian-American marketplace - what they read in the press,

what they hear from friends and business associates. I don’t have a

client who doesn’t have some sort of PR in his or her marketing and

outreach strategy.’

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