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Sprint and DHL are using the new Asian American Association as a powerful marketing tool, channeling brand messages and special offers to a group that could reach 1.5 million Asian-Americans within a year.

The Los Angeles-based association, founded by a group of Asian-American businessmen, is a buying club offering members discounts on products and services from Sprint, DHL Air Express, Pearle Vision, Avis, and other marketers. The association also provides free telephone directory assistance and an information hot line in several Asian languages.

For marketers, the association grants access to a consumer group difficult to target but well worth the effort. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., with average household income 18% above the national average, according to the most recent census figures. Their ranks are also well-educated, with 38% receiving a bachelor's degree or higher by 1990, compared with 20% of the total population.

Frustrated by their own efforts to target Asian-Americans, Sprint and DHL say they'll funnel most marketing funds through the association in the future.

The Asian American Association eventually will charge a membership fee, but for now Sprint is picking up the tab for new members. The association has 183,000 members so far and is sending out 150,000 pieces of direct mail each month to recruit individuals and small business owners.

Sprint is targeting Asian consumers and businesses, since they use international long distance at a level three times greater than any other U.S. ethnic group, said Jim Dodd, Sprint's assistant VP-Asian marketing.

In the past three years, Sprint has spent $15 million to $20 million on Asian-targeted marketing through agency Intertrend, Los Angeles. The marketer will continue to work with Intertrend as it tailors direct mail and other marketing efforts to the association's members.

"Here's a group of people who know how to communicate with the Asian-American community more succinctly, who understand the buying patterns and the psychological profile much better than we do on our own," Mr. Dodd said.

DHL agrees, admitting it's "made some mistakes" targeting Asian small business owners in the past. The company poured money into TV ads "without a way to capture the end user," said Andy Quient, global account manager.

The shipping company now will rely on the Asian American Association's telemarketing services to capture small businesses.

The association will contact members to pitch supporting marketers' products each month and will stay in touch with members through a quarterly publication, said Helen Shih, a board member who helped found the association with her brother, Marty Shih. Mr. Shih has provided Sprint, DHL and others with telemarketing services to the Asian community through various business ventures in recent years.

Marketers also will tie into events held at the association's Los Angeles headquarters, located next to a freeway where "40% of all Asian-Americans in the U.S. drive by every day," said Mr. Dodd.

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