With the success of Crazy Rich Asians many brand managers will decide that it’s finally time to start paying attention to this often-overlooked segment. They will find, however, that unlike the U.S. Hispanic or African American markets, there is little consensus as to how to market to Asian Americans. The problem begins with the moniker. Asian Americans are less likely to identify with a pan-Asian identity & more likely to identify with their countries of origin. This is partly due to the more recent immigration status of the majority of Asian Americans (59% are foreign born as compared to 34% for Hispanics) and the dearth of Asian American role models and cultural touchstones in popular media. The success of Crazy Rich Asians is certainly welcome and will help support a budding pan-Asian identity, but marketers still need a better-defined target in order to finally focus the resources on the Asian American market that it deserves.
U.S. Hispanics learn to be “Hispanic” from U.S. popular media. Argentinians, Colombians and Mexicans have different foods and traditions in their respective countries of origin but most watch Spanish-language television when they first arrive to the U.S. and learn about each other from journalists like Jorge Ramos, Sportscasters like Andrés Cantor and television shows like El Chavo del Ocho, El Gordo y La Flaca and telenovelas from across Latin America. They can also look to Ricky Martin (Puerto Rican), Sofia Vergara (Colombian), Selena Gomez (Mexican), A-Rod (Dominican) and a universe of other celebrities who form the fabric of U.S. Hispanic culture as role-models. While there are certainly well-known Asian American celebrities, their numbers are few compared to other groups. "Tokens on the Small Screen," a study conducted by professors and scholars from six California universities, found that Asian Americans comprised just 4% of prime-time television series regulars & most were concentrated in a handful of shows.
Is it even possible for Asian Americans to forge a Pan-Asian American culture that can be leveraged as a consumer, cultural and political block? First let’s define who Asian Americans are. The U.S. Census tells us there are 20 million Asian Americans from 20 countries in East & Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and Pacific Islands. They are usually divided into four geographic groups:
Most Asian Americans, however, trace their ancestry to one of five countries.
As such, much of what we currently call Asian marketing is country specific marketing to Asian Americans who trace their ancestry to one of these five groups. This is mostly necessitated by the different languages spoken across Asia but also by a lack of consensus as to what the defining characteristics of what the Asian American market is.
One of the most commonly cited statistics related to the Asian American market is that they’re “high income”. While it’s true that Asian American’s have the highest median annual household income among U.S. ethnic groups, $73,060, it varies considerably by country of origin. One the high end, Indian Americans have median household incomes of $100,000, Chinese Americans come in at $70,000 but Bangladeshi’s, Nepalese, Burmese and many other Asian groups have incomes well below the median. If we are talking about the 5 largest groups, however, they are indeed affluent with an average $77,500 median household income.
While shared affluence is something marketers can use to target Asian Americans, it’s not specific to them. 75% of American millionaires, for example, are White, 8% are Asian, 8% are African American and 7% are Hispanic. Affluent individuals can be found among all ethnic groups.
High levels of education is another commonly cited Asian trait. About half of Asians ages 25 and older (51%) have a bachelor’s degree or more, compared with 30% of all Americans this age. This, however, varies widely by Asian origin group. According to the Pew Research Center “Indians have the highest level of educational attainment among Asian Americans, with 72% holding a bachelor’s degree or more in 2015. A majority of Sri Lankan (57%), Mongolian (59%) and Malaysian (60%) adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or more. But lower shares of adults have a bachelor’s degree for Cambodians (18%), Laotians (16%) and Bhutanese (9%).”
Higher education levels among Asian Americans appear to be linked to work-related immigration. India has the highest number of H-1B Visa holders in the U.S. and China has the second highest. Since high levels of education are prerequisites for skilled professional visas like the H-1B, this program tends to skew Asian immigrants towards higher levels of education. Note that about 8% of Indians and 9% of Chinese have bachelor’s degrees in their home countries, far below the U.S. average. Asian American’s focus on education is often cited as a cultural value but the phenomena of highly educated Asians in the U.S. may owe more to a quirk in the immigration system than a deep-seated cultural value. Once in the U.S., however, it’s true that college educated parents tend to produce college educated children at higher rates than non-college educated parents so perhaps education is on its way to becoming a defining Asian American value.
Sociologists often turn to religious beliefs when segmenting populations by shared values. U.S. Hispanics, for example are either Catholic (55%), Evangelical (16%), other Christian (8%) or unaffiliated (18%). Judeo-Christian values play and out-sized role in U.S. Hispanic cultural practices regardless of country of origin. Asian Americans, however, display a greater variety of religious beliefs: Christian (42%), Buddhist (14%), Hindu (10%), Muslim (4%), Sikh (1%) and unaffiliated (26%). This makes it more difficult to forge a common Asian American identity rooted in religious beliefs.
What then do we use to segment Asian Americans as a group for marketing and communication purposes? Scholarly articles on Asian values generally focus on such things as Conformity to Norms, Deference to Family and Elders, Humility, Emotional Control and values related to Collectivism. The issue, however, is that most of this work is focused on Asian values within Asian countries, not Asian Americans. Individuals who emigrate from their home countries, however, are different than their non-emigrating compatriots and the act of living in a new host country changes personal and cultural values. Because of this, we’re currently conducting a study of Asian American values at ThinkNow that will focus on similarities and differences among Asian American sub-groups to try to find the over-arching values that can be used to underpin communication to this growing group of Americans.
In the meantime, enjoy Crazy Rich Asians. Who knows, maybe by the time the sequel comes out there will be more than one Asian inspired food option at the theater and you’ll be able to order a Thai iced tea and wasabi covered soybeans instead of popcorn and Coke.