The good news is that this segment is wealthy, educated and growing. The bad news is that many ad themes used to reach the general market don't work as well with Asian-Americans.
"They may know about Ford, Saturn and Chrysler, but since they aren't seeing ads in the media they watch, many Asians aren't getting beyond the initial message," says Eliot Kang, president, Kang & Lee Advertising, a New York-based shop that focuses exclusively on marketing to Asian-Americans.
Just the demographics alone might make one think auto manufacturers would be racing to develop marketing programs that would appeal to Asian-Americans. Indeed, Volkswagen of America last month named Loiminchay Inc., New York and San Francisco, as its first Asian-American agency of record.
The Census Bureau predicts there will be 12.1 million Asian-Americans living in the U.S. by the year 2000, a 62% increase from 7.5 million in 1990.
In California alone, more than 2.8 million Asian-Americans were living in the state in 1990, a 127% increase from 1.3 million in 1980. That number should grow to 4.9 million by 2000 and 7.2 million in 2010, the bureau projects.
More importantly for marketers, Asians comprise a high-income, well-educated demographic. Census Bureau figures show the median household income of Asian/Pacific Islanders in 1992 was $38,153, compared to $32,368 for white households, $22,848 for Hispanic households and $18,660 for African-American households.
However, reaching this target requires ad strategies different from general-market ads.
Asian-Americans tend to be extremely brand loyal, and develop lifelong relationships with particular brands, industry executives say.
"It's not just the population numbers, but Asians are extremely brand loyal," says Howard Berman, VP-management supervisor, Davis Ball & Colombatto Advertising, Los Angeles. The agency, which handles advertising for the Southern California Toyota Dealers Advertising Association, regularly creates and places Asian language campaigns.
"If they like your product, they bring in their friends and relatives, too," Mr. Berman says.
For the last four years, the dealer association has run Asian language campaigns, with, it seems, good results. Among Chinese-Americans living in the Los Angeles area of dominant influence, Toyota ownership increased from 25% in 1989 to 40% in 1993, according to a survey conducted by Gallup Organization for Asian Media Sales. The same survey found that in the San Francisco ADI, Toyota ownership among Chinese-Americans rose to 28% in 1993 from 18% in 1986.
The tendency among Asian-Americans, many of whom are first generation in the U.S., is to pass on brand loyalties developed in their home countries to their relatives and offspring.
`The parent will look with suspicion upon any brand that they don't recognize or have good feelings for," notes John Lee Bingham, VP-marketing at KBC-TV, a block of Korean-language programming that airs on WFBT-TV, Chicago.
"An image ad doesn't tell newcomers to the U.S. why they should buy a particular car," Mr. Kang says.
Instead, Asian-Americans tend to want as much information as possible about a product.
For instance, Korean-Americans would be more likely to be interested in Cadillac if they knew more details about its Northstar engine system, rather than seeing fancy photographs of cars racing up mountains, says Mr. Bingham.
"That's what they want to know, they want to know everything possible about the car, especially if it has a new feature like the Northstar system," he says.
But even if auto marketers have pinned down ad themes, they still must grapple with the issue of media.
Unlike other minority segments like Hispanics, the Asian-American community encompasses many languages, from Japanese to Vietnamese to the various Chinese dialects. As a result, marketers must undertake separate executions for each Asian nationality.
It's an issue that's made at least one marketer place English-language ads on foreign-language media.
An English-language campaign for Ford Motor Co. dealers is airing on KIKU-TV, Honolulu, a Japanese-language station, and, according to David Odo, the station's general sales manager, Ford is thinking about making the same spots available in Southern California later this spring.
The few foreign-language attempts that have been executed have met with only moderate success.
Jay True, former Cadillac marketing manager for the Midwest zone, says it made sense to him to link Cadillac and the Ameritech Senior Open Golf Tournament together in Korean-language TV spots that aired on KBC-TV last summer.
"There are many Korean-Americans who prefer to buy Cadillacs; they don't purchase Japanese cars," says Mr. True, now Cadillac advertising manager. "That brand preference, combined with the demographics of golf, seemed like a good fit."
The TV station took English-language spots, created by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and re-dubbed the voiceover using its own Korean-speaking anchors. At the same time, the station helped Cadillac create a mailing list for a direct-response flyer announcing the golf tournament and offering individuals two free tickets to the tournament by stopping into a participating Cadillac dealership.
Cadillac expected a 10% to 12% response rate, but got about a 5% percent response.
"We did hear from our dealers that people were coming into their showrooms, but we're learning that it's one thing to advertise directly to Koreans and have them come into the showroom and another thing to close the deal," Mr. True says.
Still, advertising on Asian language media is barely a tenth of what it would cost to air similar spots on English-language stations.
On some TV stations in Los Angeles, spot time can be purchased for $150 to $400, compared to $5,000 to $6,000 per 30-second spot on primetime newscasts, Mr. Berman says.
Industry executives say Mazda and Honda are readying new Asian-language campaigns that will run also in California.
"What we're trying to do is provide good research ........... that makes a compelling case to advertise to Asian-Americans in their own language," says Greg Sullivan, president of Asian Media Sales, a Los Angeles-based rep firm for Asian media.
Mr. Sullivan's company has found that each year 18% of all Asian-American households look to buy a new car.
"To us, that's a market worth fighting for," he says.
Raymond Serafin contributed to this story.