Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation (Updated 2018)

“I could turn around and find myself transformed into Genghis Khan, Tojo, Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Hop Sing, Mr. Sulu, Kato, Bruce Lee, Arnold on Happy Days, Sam on Quincy, M.E. I was the Number One Son, intoning “Ah so,” bending at the waist and shuffling backwards out of the room, with opium smoking, incense burning, and ancestor worshipping.… My mother and my girl cousins were Madame Butterfly from the mail order bride catalog, dying in their service to the masculinity of the West, and the dragon lady in a kimono, taking vengeance for her sisters. They became the television newscaster, look-alikes, with their flawlessly permed hair.”

What makes today’s Asian stereotypes unique is that they lack the perniciousness of other stereotypes, at least at face value. In the American psyche, Asians are thought of as highly intelligent, technically skilled, hardworking, disciplined, serious, and thrifty, all solid American values. Asian students are expected to exceed their allotment of spaces at top universities, fill the upper economic brackets, and quietly fall into the shadows of society’s consciousness.

Asian Americans, at least ones who do not come from countries with a high refugee exodus, tend to support that stereotype. According to 2015 U.S. Census statistics, 36 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, and 16 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or more — compared to 54 percent of Asian American. When talking about advanced degrees like a master’s or PhD, 14 percent of whites have one, while 21 percent of Asian-Americans do. But it’s important not to treat Asian-Americans as a monolithic group. Cambodians and Hmong in the U.S. are far lower on the economic ladder than groups from other Asian countries and have far lower educational attainment than other Asian-Americans.

Take California, a state that has, by far, the most Asian-Americans in the U.S. According to the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice 2013, Samoan, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Tongan, Cambodian, Hmong, and Mongolians all had poverty rates above the state average from 2006-2010.  Hmong and Cambodian Americans are much more likely to be refugees. A 2016 report from the Brookings Institute shows that the Asian American groups that have the lowest educational and economic attainment often attend worse schools. Note that Brookings measured the quality of schools that racial groups had access to, rather than the ones they actually attend. What the study found was that those Asian American groups who were lower on the educational achievement scale – Hmong, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Laotian – tended to have access to poorer schools, essentially at the same level as African Americans. Their conclusion is to beware of using the “model minority” stereotype to generalize about all Asian Americans.

In general, the impression that Asian Americans as a group are very success-oriented, led to the coining of the phrase “model minority” to describe them. Critics of this terminology point to the struggling refugee populations to show that the label is overly broad and damaging to Asian communities that need assistance. Others assert that the persistent and unrealistic expectation that “all Asians are smart” puts too much pressure on many Asian Americans.

According to sociologists Rosalind S. Chou and Joe R. Feagin, in their book The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism (Paradigm Publishers, 2010), being viewed as a model minority does not prevent Asian Americans from experiencing racial hostility and discrimination, particularly mocking and caricaturing. In their research, Chou and Feagin found that the Asian Americans whom they interviewed to be “excluded and othered,” often overtly.  They conclude that for Asian Americans, racism is a constantly lived experience, which manifests with “a subtle or covert face, leaving its targets to wonder if an incident was indeed generated by discriminatory intent.”  One of their respondents described his experience in the workplace working as a cabinetmaker:

If you are Asian, they always pick on you.  It doesn’t matter how good you are. I used to have a boss, and he would come to the shop and make fun of me, like talking in [mock] Chinese language … You don’t hear them making fun of whites, do you?  If you make fun of them, then they will get angry … Take the N-word, they banned that word, but they are still calling the Chinese “Chinaman.

Still, the stereotype of Asian super achiever persists. The attitude of media taste makers and marketers has been that there’s nothing wrong with employing these stereotypes. This logic is especially attractive to advertisers, for whom stereotypes serve a purpose. They help convey a complex message in a 30-or 60-second package, a “shorthand which helps to convey ideas and images quickly and easily,” to use the words of Alice Courtney and Thomas Whipple.

Stereotyping Asians might be great for marketing to a mainstream audience, particularly if it gets a laugh, but it is not always funny to the group being stereotyped. For Asian Americans, stereotypes are a stark reminder that in the psyche of popular consciousness, they are different; they are foreign. For those who feel themselves to be part of the red, white, and blue, stereotypes are a reminder that those who trace their ancestry to Asia are of a different hue. In the book, The Asian American Movement (Temple University Press, 1993), William Wei writes, “Whether negative or positive, stereotypes are essentially false images that obscure the complexity and diversity that is an inherent feature of Asian Americans as well as other people. Whether it be the Chinese launderer, the Korean grocery store owner, or the South Asian Maharaja, this kind of imagery reinforces the stereotype in the American mind that Asians, American or not, are ‘other.’”

Clearly, different Asian Americans relate differently to the experience of growing up Asian in the United States. However, all have been exposed to the stereotypes on one occasion or another, if not in real life, than certainly on the media. As we’ve seen with other markets, the cost of offending Asian Americans is dear, and the benefit that can be obtained by respectfully including them in a company’s marketing efforts can greatly pay off.

As in the case of Hispanics, marketing to the U.S.-born generation can be tricky and the desire to market to these consumers brings up questions that are not easily answered. Are they so assimilated, as some think, that there is no point in doing any kind of targeted marketing outreach? Or is there something sufficiently unique about them that makes targeting them desirable or necessary? How do you reach them without being stereotypical, or specifically in the case of Asian Americans, how do you reach them without making them feel “singled out.” In order to answer these questions, it’s useful to gain an understanding of who these U.S.-born Asians are and what makes them tick.

According to psychologist May Pao-may Tung, these cultural differences are also a source of conflict for Asian Americans. In her book, Chinese Americans and Their Immigrant Parents (Haworth Clinical Practice Press, 2000), she relates some of the common themes she encounters while conducting psychotherapy with young Chinese Americans. She writes that these themes include “a sense of parental disapproval or emotional withholding (“It’s never good enough”), inadequate or mistaken guidance (from parents) … and role reversals. In relation to society at large, they often feel unsure of themselves, not knowing who they are. The sense of being ‘invisible’ or overlooked is pervasive. I began to see that much of the intergenerational and societal conflicts basically stem from the intercultural misunderstandings and antagonism.”

Marketers need to be clear on which Asian ethnicity they plan to target as well as what level of acculturation makes the most sense. Many companies have been successful narrowing their scope, for instance by focusing on Chinese, Indians, or Koreans. Others have targeted more than one Asian segment. Many have focused on newly arrived Asian-American immigrants, while still others have focused on more acculturated immigrants or even U.S.-born Asian Americans.

There are strong indications that, as in the case of Hispanics, when looking at the long term horizon, English will likely be the way to go.  About 80 percent of Asian Americans under the age of 18 were born in the United States; it is 93 percent for Hispanics.  In addition, New American Dimensions’ research has shown that only about half of second-generation Asians speak an Asian language, compared with three-quarters of their Hispanic counterparts who speak Spanish.

While caught up in what is often a binary racial dynamic in the United States between black and white, the experience of Asian Americans, while lacking the lacking the venom of the last century, is laden with stereotypes from days gone by.  With Asian Americans taking their place as the fastest growing minority in the United States, and with an overwhelming number of younger Asian Americans having been born here, this previously scorned and excluded group is taking its place, front and center, in reshaping the America of today and tomorrow.



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