LATIN AMERICA;PANAMA OFFERS COST-EFFICIENCY TO ASIA/PACIFIC

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If you go to Panama, you can find the Latin American headquarters of Sony, Goldstar, Samsung and other Asian electronics marketers.

"Above all, it's because of the free trade zone in Colon," said Alicia Pena, a marketing expert for Pioneer based in Panama City. "All types of merchandise comes to Panama from elsewhere in Latin America, the U.S.-and Africa."

The free trade zone in Colon, on the Caribbean coast, handled more than $10 billion of imports and re-exports in 1994-more than the gross national product of many neighboring countries.

Most shipping lines and airlines pass through Panama, allowing Asian companies to distribute products throughout the region. The free trade zone avoids taxes and customs bureaucracy.

"You might want to sell five to 15 TVs in Costa Rica and the rest of your stock elsewhere in Latin America-but you have to pay taxes on all," said Eric Quesada, the former general manager of Costa Rica's Korea Trade Center.

Asian companies also find Panama's currency-the U.S. dollar-makes regional transactions easier. "The stability of the currency" makes it "very easy to exchange with other countries," said one Goldstar marketing executive.

The nation's banking system has attracted branches from hundreds of different banks, with more than $25 billion in assets.

Panama isn't free of disadvantages for Asian marketers. With only 2.5 million people, it lacks an adequate market, and Panama City and Colon both suffer hot, humid weather and high crime rates.

But getting there is easy. Many airlines fly to Panama City, so it's possible to travel from there around the region to keep tabs on new trends, said Ana Maria Ortiz, Sony's chief of advertising in Latin America.

And Asian companies don't always settle on one agency for the region, Ms. Ortiz said, as quality varies by country. Sony uses BBDO in Colombia and Chile, but Different Publicidad in Ecuador and Young & Rubicam in Central America.

Previously, Pioneer directed marketing efforts from Japan, with marketing focused on newspaper and magazine articles.

It doesn't have an ad agency. Now Pioneer is moving its marketing section to Panama City. "We're in the planning stages for a television campaign in Latin America," said Ms. Pena.

Sony, in Panama for 25 years, heavily markets on TV.

"It's still very cheap compared to Japan, the United States or Europe," said Ms. Ortiz. "Penetration by television is very effective. People are still heavily influenced by a pretty commercial."

Goldstar also focuses on TV marketing and doesn't do any direct marketing. "Our products are not like food."

The Goldstar executive said Korean TVs have "no marked appreciable differences in the technologies of the product, so we emphasize service to the client."

With the dropping of trade barriers around Latin America, electronics marketers said even though the regional economy has slowed down in the last two years, it's still an attractive market.

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