Ads target Asian Americans, and their growing wealth Companies perceive 'untapped market'

January 23, 1993|By Chau Lam | Chau Lam,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Ads inviting you to "eat your fingers off" or "come and wake up your dead ancestors" are hardly the sort of slogans to arouse one's appetite or thirst. But those are precisely what some bewildered Asian Americans were told in ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pepsi.

Despite such minor setbacks -- the result of a literal translation of some well-known slogans -- advertisements for companies like AT&T, Bank of America and Seagram's are moving full-steam ahead to woo these new Americans.

The reasons for this growing interest are simple: people and money. The Asian population in the United States more than doubled in the 1980s -- the greatest increase of any ethnic group. Numbering 7.5 million, Asian Americans have a buying power estimated at $110 billion. Asian households also showed the largest rise in median income, with a 9.5 percent gain, to $36,800, in 1989, from $33,500 in 1979, according to the Census Bureau.

"It's an untapped market, and a lot of money not courted after," said Eleanor Yu, president of San Francisco-based Adland Advertising, the largest Asian-American advertising agency in the nation.

For today's Lunar New Year, Bank of America is handing out "red envelopes" filled with promotional materials for its Asian-American customers.

Traditionally given to friends and relatives, these palm-sized envelopes are usually stuffed with money. In this case, the bank's oversized envelopes give customers the choice of 200 free checks, free checking for six months or an $8 bonus when they open a checking account.

If $8 seems like an arbitrary sum, it probably isn't to the bank's new target customers: In Cantonese, eight is a lucky number.

The U.S. government hasn't ignored this growing market, with the Postal Service issuing a "Happy New Year" stamp commemorating the Year of the Rooster.

There have been some problems in trying to appeal to this market. Kentucky Fried Chicken, which touts its chicken as "finger-lickin' good," tried to attract Asian customers by telling them that you will "eat your fingers off."

Pepsi, trying to expand the reach of "Come alive, you're in the Pepsi generation," exhorted its Chinese customers to "come and wake up your dead ancestors."

Most companies still treat the Asian market as a single segment, without distinguishing among the different cultures. Some, however, are learning the differences.

"We custom-tailor each ad to a specific market," Ms. Yu said. Adland's focus on Asian consumers has paid off: Its billings reached almost $13 million in 1992, compared to $1 million in 1984, when the agency was founded.

One general characteristic that agencies have found is that Asians tend to buy brands they know best. Name brands of cognac, for example, are popular in Southeast Asia, and companies like Seagram need only "remind [customers] that there is Martell in the U.S.," Ms. Yu said.

An even bigger potential exists in calling home. AT&T is offering its Vietnamese customers in New York a free three-minute phone call during today's holiday.

AT&T is especially aggressive in pursuing newly arrived immigrants.

AT&T recently opened in Flushing, N.Y., its first Global Communications Center, to assist non-English speaking customers.

Besides helping immigrants who have no phone, the center is for illegal immigrants -- especially because AT&T accepts cash, said Simone Acque, an AT&T spokeswoman. "They, too, need to call their families."

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