The Asian answer

Effectively reaching the US' 14.2 million Asian Americans takes a strong commitment to understanding cultural differences.

Effectively reaching the US' 14.2 million Asian Americans takes a strong commitment to understanding cultural differences.

When the Kwongs pile into the car for a trip to Wal-Mart, it's a three-generation family affair: Grandma wants clothes, mom needs household supplies, and the kids have new video games to master.

Chinese Americans living in Southern California, the Kwongs were some of several real-life Wal-Mart customers featured in the Bentonville, AR-based retailer's first Asian-American-targeted marketing campaign, ongoing since April 2005. Crafted by LA's IW Group, the multi-component, multi-language effort is aimed at the 100,000 to 150,000 Asian-American consumers living in close proximity to Wal-Mart stores, particularly in California, Texas, New York, and New Jersey. An even more extensive outreach effort is planned for this year.

"[We realize] the importance of the Asian-American community," says Joy Wooden, Wal-Mart's director of diversity relations for the Asian-American market. As a 10-year Wal-Mart employee - and first-generation Chinese American - Wooden has experienced the company's commitment to forging strong bonds with Asian-American consumers firsthand.

"Being an Asian-American woman in business, I thought there were so many things I could do to give back to the community," Wooden says. Wal-Mart also is reaching out to Asian-American audiences via leadership education, scholarships, philanthropic support, and entrepreneurial programs. From hiring Asian-American employees to creating partnerships with national and local organizations that ser-vice the Asian- American market, she says Wal-Mart has supported her team's efforts both in concept and with financial resources.

An untapped resource

Asian-American consumers are "a very underserved market," says Jimmy Lee, IW Group's VP of PR. "Corporations don't know how to target them, just like they didn't know how to target Hispanics 10 years ago." But with total purchasing power of more than $396.5 billion, the group's resources are "larger than some European first-world countries," he says.

"Organizations realize that entry is going to gain them trust, value, and brand recognition with a loyal consumer base," says Pawan Mehra, partner at San Francisco firm Ameredia. But many have traditionally seen Asian-American markets as too complex.

Indeed, the segment comprises 17 major groups, notes Soa Kang, president of LA's Ten Communications, and each has its own language and culture. A key similarity, however, is Asian-American consumers' preference for being addressed in their native tongues.

For Wal-Mart, producing work in various Asian languages reflected "respect for all our customers and a deep commitment to diversity," says Linda Brown Blakley, senior communications manager.

Spearheaded by Wooden, last fall Wal-Mart also teamed up with the Asian American Federation of New York to present a "How to do business with Wal-Mart" seminar for potential Asian-American suppliers, Blakley says; a similar event was held in LA.

But while the US' 14.2 million Asian-Americans represent the second-fastest growing population segment after Hispanics, "Asian-American outreach is always the last on the list" of marketing priorities, says Kang, whose firm handles Asian-American PR for clients that include Bank of America and Kaiser Permanente.

Appetite for information

Outreach initiatives such as these address another similarity among Asian-American consumers: their insatiable hunger for information.

"Wal-Mart hadn't been doing any active communication with the Asian-American community," says Lee. "The outreach effort needed to be supported by information, history, and education."

Debra Nakatomi, whose eponymous Santa Monica, CA, firm handles Asian-American PR for such companies as Southern California Edison and Farmers Group Insurance, has also found that creating a well-informed consumer base is key to building trusting relationships with potential Asian-American buyers - especially when it comes to healthcare.

For years, there has been a lack of information - and a stigma - about hepatitis B within the Asian-American segment, Nakatomi says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of all ethnic groups, Asians experience the highest rate of hepatitis B. When Nakatomi's client, Talecris Biotherapeutics, wanted to launch an awareness campaign targeting the sizeable Hmong community in California's Central Valley, she "started from the ground up," she recalls, engaging community leaders, healthcare providers, physicians, clinics, and even faith-based organizations, "not to market a particular product, but to create an informed consumer base."

Talecris' hepatitis B literacy education campaign includes community roundtables, patient-education forums, and a short piece on regional Hmong TV.

Reaching those in-language, media outlets is essential, says Lee: The US has more than 650 Asian-American-focused TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers, 70% of which are in California.

To reach its diverse Asian-American audience, the AAA of Northern California, Nevada, and Utah frequently utilizes in-language media opportunities, says AAA's manager of public affairs Jeannine Yeomans. A full-time staffer devoted to non-English news media "scouts the company for AAA employees who are fluent in Chinese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese," she says. "That's why you may see a AAA insurance agent on [Asian] TV giving consumer-safety tips in Mandarin and Cantonese."

But dealing with Asian-American media is different from mainstream media, Nakatomi cautions. It's more relationship-focused, and even deadlines and story-pitching styles are unique. "It takes homework," she says.

Ultimately, understanding the nuances may be the most important factor of all multicultural outreach efforts, says Michael Soon Lee, president of Dublin, CA, diversity-awareness consulting firm EthnoConnect. "All marketing efforts are wasted if they aren't culturally competent," he says.

Cultural Keys

All companies must be aware of Asian Americans' cultural differences, says EthnoConnect's Michael Soon Lee. "If customers aren't treated with sensitivity to their culture, they won't buy." Here are three of many unique traits.

1. Superstition. While a phone number with the digits 666 may be amusing to the mainstream, it's a campaign killer to use a string of death-symbolizing 4s.

2. Spending habits. Asian-American shoppers' "carts are bigger," says IW's Jimmy Lee. "Their total bills are usually higher; they buy more high-ticket items." Small-ticket promotions will generally not interest them.

3. Taking the paper. Though newspaper readership is down among general consumers, it's booming in the Asian-American segment, where print media is still considered the primary source of information.

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