March 24, 2012 by Laura Kina
Marketing to the Melting Wok: How to Speak to Asians and Catch the “Fastest Growing Racial Group” in the U.S.
A Book Review (of sorts)
Many Culture One Market: A Guide To Understanding Opportunities In The Asian Pacific American Market by Robert Kumaki and Jack Moran (The Copy Workshop: Chicago, 2010)
Asian spotting is a hard habit to kick. I counted 3 other Asian Americans at my 20-year high school reunion this past summer in my rural Pacific Northwest hometown of Poulsbo, WA (think Snow Falling on Cedars but with Norwegians). Psychologists and sociologists have labeled this tendency to be drawn to others who look like you as the “Own-Race Effect.” As someone who is also Asian/White, I feel like this effect is exacerbated. I’m an Associate Professor of Art, Media, & Design at DePaul University in Chicago and I count 3 other Asian/White faculty in my College of Liberal Arts & Social Science. I’m also piqued to receive information about “my people” so when the U.S. Census Bureau announced on March 21, 2012that in the 2010 Census, “Asians grew faster than any other group over the last decade” I paid attention. With a 45.6% increase, we make up 5.6% of the population or 17.3 million now and of that group, 2.6 million identified as more than one race.
I wonder how being framed as, “the fastest growing population” will translate into representation in positions of leadership and power? Just because there are more of us, will anything really change or will we continue to be seen as “model minorities” or invisible and statistically insignificant? Will we see more Asian C-level executives? Could there be an American President of Asian descent one day and when will marketers ever stop lumping us with Whites?
l do have to admit that when I’m looking for a good laugh, I troll through Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like blog and the opening Ivy League contour line drawing in his 2010 Whiter Shades of Pale: Coast to Coast,From Seattle’s Sweaters To Maine’s Mircrobrews of a sporty young woman with a Harvard sweatshirt, baseball cap, and Democratic Party gear looks suspiciously like a certain member of my family who still Obeys her Obama 08 t-shirts. But I know we really aren’t the same. Like you know that when you mess up, a White person might just think, “oops, I made a mistake. I’ll do better next time.” But for us Asians, messing up brings shame to entire family! Filial piety lives on for better and for worse. I know that as the number one daughter in my family (and yes, I said daughter not son) my actions, even as an adult, supposedly set an example for my younger brothers and for the next generation, even those not even born. Cultural euphemisms such as “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” vs. “the nail that sticks up gets hammered” provide generalizations about Asian belief systems that may or may not still be true for some of us but we can see differences in areas that we can actually measure such as our consumption. In the category of food, for example, did you know that in a 2007 CES study Asians accounted for 8.3% of expenditures on fish and seafood yet made up only 3.5% of CES households (Kumaki, 170)? Surely you don’t see most other racial groups buying rice in 25 lb bags and prominently displaying an electric rice cooker on their kitchen counter on a regular basis? As an artist and an Asian American studies scholar I’ve thought a lot about representation but not as much about Marketing with a capital M. Criticizing blatantly racist media images or complaining about lack of representation is one thing but what if I really want to reach “my people”? Rice may be rice but Asian Americans come from such a myriad of different cultures that finding a common ground can seem to be daunting. How do you even begin speaking to a pan-Asian American audience? Start by "speaking English," Robert Kumaki suggests, and look for the “sweet spot [in the Asian American market] of family, finance, technology or education.”
His 2010 co-authored book with Jack Moran, Many Culture One Market: A Guide To Understanding Opportunities In The Asian Pacific American Market, has some golden tips to cracking this “Melting Wok” market, which the authors consider “low hanging-fruit” for marketers. For the sake of being as “inclusive as possible” they chose to lump Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders into the mix despite what they concede as the “dramatically different socio-economic experiences from the rest of Asian Americans.” Hence the term “APA” (Asian Pacific American) is used in the book and this review even though it is no longer used in the U.S. Census nor in activist and academic contexts in Asian American studies except in a historical sense. Remember that this is a marketing book so there is a constant push and pull between defining a targeted niche market and redefining what really is mainstream. Kumaki and Moran make a case that while some think of the APA market as only 4% (this was prior to the new 2010 stats) that it leans more towards 8% and even as high as 20% of the U.S. market. The book is written in a user-friendly form with a personal voice that draws upon the authors’ years of experience in senior research and management positions and their personal and professional expertise in ethnographic marketing. Their broad generalizations about the APA market are backed up with lists, bullet points and statistics. Each chapter has a series of overt framing questions and end of the chapter summaries, all of which made this topic accessible to me as a non-marketing expert. I could easily see Many Cultures One Market being used in a classroom, corporate or non-profit settings to facilitate group discussions about how to reach APA and cross-over audiences in the U.S.. Being a long time Chicagoan, I really appreciate the regional examples of Asian American marketing such as Chicago’s Chinese restaurants reflecting the latest trends in Asian cuisine and hip interior design rather than staying stuck in a time warp (all I have to say is everyone want to be the next Tony Hu). You don’t have to go to LA or NY to get hand-pulled noodles (go to Hing Kee) and Shanghai soup dumplings anymore and Peking duck chopped up table-side is available nightly at Chicago’s Sun Wah BBQ restaurant.
One doesn’t need to be a big corporation or even officially in marketing either to ask questions about reaching the Asian American market. For example, I found myself asking “marketing questions” for my own practice as an artist, academic, and non-profit volunteer: How can I find a market outside of my ethnic group or racial experience to be interested in my paintings that are about specific Asian ethnic groups and locations? How can I get corporate sponsors to donate to the Japanese American Service Committee "Living our Culture: A Celebration of Japanese American Art and Culture" benefit we are organizing on June 7th (seriously, please feel free to contact Carol Yoshina at the JASC if you want to be a sponsor or donate goods or services)? How do reach a broader audience to be part of the ethnic/racially specific non-profit orgs I am involved with? How can I get a wider range of students to enroll in our Global Asian Studies program? How can my University do a better job recruiting and retaining Asian faculty, staff, and students? You get the idea.
Many Cultures One Market starts by dispelling some common myths about multicultural marketing such as the perception that the only way to reach Asians is to run targeted Asian language ads in Asian-specific media. They caution that this can too often lead to mis-translation and cite a well-known example from years ago when Pepsi tried to translate “Come alive with Pepsi.” “The result? ‘Pepsi-Cola brings your ancestors back from the dead.’ That’s one heck of a product benefit.” It turns out we are consuming mainstream media just like everyone else albeit apparently we watch less TV and are more inclined to get our news online and open direct mail.
Besides our penchant for seafood and speaking English, the book characterizes APA’s drive towards assimilation as going up the “APA Escalator.” Instead of inscrutable perpetual foreigners, Many Cultures One Market provides cultural snapshots of APAs as interconnected global tribes that can be characterized as tech-savvy early adapters, family and community oriented, focused on education, foodies, increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic, entrepreneurial, and over-represented in the sciences, engineering, finance and medicine. Before you dismiss this as a little too close to the old model minority stereotype, they do aggregate this population and point to more complex Yellow Peril history in which the American “political and legal systems have constructed barrier after barrier to the creation of an APA community.” I’ll be a spoiler here and go straight to what I think the point of this book is as outlined in chapter XI. “One Market: A New Paradigm to Make It Simple”:
We feel there are three basic ideas that can help you define, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and then reach the APA marketplace:
· There is an identity to which all APA groups can relate. It transcends language, country of origin, and even the number of generations in the U.S.
· Derived from this identity, there are commonalities that exist amongst almost all APAs – commonalities that don’t necessarily exist among non-APAs.
· There is a market that can be aggregated under this identity.
To help you identify and then connect with the marketing opportunity, we identify three major drives – one is culturally based, one is physically based, and one is language-based.
Simply put, you have to understand:
The Americanization Dynamic – the cultural driver
The Own-Race Effect – the physical driver
English as a Common Denominator – the language driver
I was pleasantly surprised to see a chapter devoted to “Hapas” and that the authors gave serious attention to the non-APA crossover market, which includes parents of oversees adoptees. Vincent Cheng’s Inauthentic: The Anxiety Over Culture and Identity (Rutgers University Press, 2004) fleshes out and critiques this market of parents that are enrolling their kids in martial arts and Asian language classes in droves and having their kids look for their roots in fan dance and Disney’s Mulan. The main practical take away for me was in their closing chapter XVI. “APA Specialists” about ROI on sponsors participating in APA event marketing and the checklist for “Criteria for Inclusion” that they offer if you should decide to use this avenue for marketing. From my 20 years of participating in Chicago’s pan-Asian arts and culture communities, I have seen this very simple marketing strategy successfully at work. If you place an ad for your restaurant in our film festival brochure, we will go there. If you table at our advocacy event, we will consider your company or product friendly to APAs. If you e-mail us personally, chances are we’ll write you back. If you send us direct mailers, we may even open up your letter and may not throw it away. So if you think you have a product or company that fits the “sweet spots” of food, family, finance, technology or education, consider reaching out to APA audiences and grab Many Cultures One Market as a handy guide to get you started.