Chasing the Subcontinent…

Why can’t this be said about Ghanaians?  Or Nigerians?  Or West Africans or Africans in general?

Chasing Desi Dollars


Sean is an hour late, but the crowd gathered in the makeshift studio at
MTV’s Times Square headquarters doesn’t seem to mind. Twenty-some
twenty-somethings are sitting around the edges of the room when the
spiky-haired British R&B star finally enters, causing more than one
girl to lean forward. Sean is miked and seated in front of an MTV logo
reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. The camera rolls, and the interview
begins. Sean talks about being a kid and starting a band in England
with his cousin, recording their first demo tape in his bedroom and
being swooned over. He also talks about listening to bhangra music,
choosing singing over medicine as a career and picking a Bollywood
actress to star in his latest music video. The interview wraps, but the
star, who was raised in Britain by India-born parents, stays seated to
shoot a few promotional clips. “This is your boy Jay Sean,” he says,
“and you’re watching MTV Desi.”

Welcome to the next marketing
frontier. For years, Western companies have understood the potential of
1 billion consumers in India, but now they are slowly starting to
realize the purchasing power of people in the U.S. who trace their
roots to the subcontinent–a group known as desis. MTV India has aired
overseas since 1996, but MTV Desi–a channel for Americans of Indian,
Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Bhutanese and Nepalese descent–is
brand new, launching this summer. And MTV isn’t alone as it chases desi
dollars. South Asian marketing is still in its infancy, but early
adopters like General Motors, Citibank and GlaxoSmithKline are
advertising in ethnic newspapers, buying airtime on satellite channels,
sponsoring cultural festivals, underwriting minority scholarships and
even creating new products, like MTV Desi.

Why the interest?
It’s not just America’s growing appetite for South Asian
culture–movies like Bend It Like Beckham and stars like Bollywood
actress and model Aishwarya Rai. The marketing thrust started with the
2000 Census, which revealed that during the 1990s the number of Indians
in the U.S. more than doubled–making them the fastest-growing Asian
minority. There are some 2.5 million desis in the U.S., and the vast
majority are Indian. That may not seem terribly significant compared
with, say, 40 million Hispanics, but consider how premium a customer a
South Asian is: Indians alone commanded $76 billion worth of disposable
personal income last year, according to market-research firm Cultural
Access Group, using figures from the University of Georgia’s Selig
Center for Economic Growth; median household income is nearly
$64,000–50% higher than the national average. The U.S. has always
welcomed the world’s poor and working classes. India has sent its

And they’re not afraid to spend. Lakshmi
Subrahmanian, 48, sums up the shopping habits of her four-person,
five-computer, six-figure-income family this way: “We like to buy the
best.” The mental-health counselor and her electrical-engineer husband
Jayram, 53, who own a five-bedroom house in Coral Springs, Fla., are
about to trade in their 2002 Mercedes–it’s time for something newer.
That spells opportunity for General Motors, which has begun pushing
Cadillacs in desi circles. “This is a great market,” says Jean
Liu-Barnocki, GM’s manager for Asian-American marketing, “and we’re
putting some very targeted resources behind reaching it.”

first glance, that might seem fairly simple. Unlike Hispanics and other
Asian minorities, South Asians often arrive fluent in English. The
influence may be more British than it is American–cricket is preferred
to baseball–but a desi in the U.S. can still pick up USA Today and
understand a Gap ad.

Whether that message gets through, though,
is a separate matter. “We speak English, but we don’t speak the same
language,” says Vivek Sharma, senior manager of India Abroad, a
U.S.-based newspaper that, along with titles such as India Today,
India-West and New India Times, is attracting ads from the likes of
Mercedes-Benz, Lufthansa, New York Life, GM, Western Union, AT&T
and the New York Times. Just consider that Sean, in typical
eyebrow-raising rock-star fashion, picked actress Bipasha Basu for his
music video in part because she was racy enough to have had an onscreen
kiss–a rarity for a Bollywood star. The mores of bare-it-all Hollywood
could not be further away.

To make an advertising message
culturally relevant, says Saul Gitlin, executive vice president at Kang
& Lee Advertising, you have to do more than toss a desi face into a
commercial. Values such as education, hierarchy and status are
unshakable for desi families, even if modified to reflect American
lifestyles. “There’s a core belief in higher education and studying and
saving,” says Phil Salis, vice president of consumer marketing at
MetLife, which has created desi-specific television advertising to run
on satellite channels such as ZEE TV, B4U, Sony TV and TV Asia. He’s
not kidding: 64% of Indians in the U.S. hold a bachelor’s degree, vs.
24% of the overall population. Says Salis: “That’s a great opportunity
for financial services.”

Marketers are also recognizing that in
close-knit, largely immigrant communities, familiarity with a brand
plays a much more important role than it does with the general public.
“Word of mouth is huge,” says Lakshmi Bhargave, 25, a graphic artist in
Chicago. “We have this theory that between Indians, it’s more like two
degrees of separation rather than the usual six.” So firms show up at
desi events and subtly introduce the message: We’re a part of your
community too. Wells Fargo sponsored a Bollywood concert in Cupertino,
Calif., in June, setting up a table in the lobby and dispensing
brochures touting its new money-transfer service to India, an
initiative aimed at stealing business from Western Union. “It’s not
just about advertising,” says Michelle Scales, director of the diverse
growth segment at Wells Fargo. “It’s about being visible in the

It took Hispanic marketers 20 years to convince
media executives that there was a case for targeting Hispanics, and
today people like Vimal Verma, chairman and CEO of American Desi, a
satellite network that launched earlier this year, are engaged in a
similar campaign for South Asians. He hopes what many in the industry
do: if the entertainment platform is built, the advertising dollars
will follow.

That’s what the folks back at MTV
are banking on too. “If you wanted to reach young South Asians, there
hasn’t been a branded, credible platform,” says Nusrat Durrani, senior
V.P. and general manager of MTV World. Voilà MTV Desi, which should
air nationally in July. After Jay Sean’s interview, he sticks around to
pose for photographs with fans. “To me, it’s been a long time coming,”
the singer says between autographs. “There is a massive market out
there.” Sean, an artist and an entrepreneur, pauses and then continues,
“We make up one-fifth of the population of the world. Imagine that.”
–With reporting by Jeanne DeQuine/ Miami, Noah Isackson/Chicago and
Laura A. Locke/ Cupertino


About papillion

Intense Often Moody Transparent Exquisitely sensitive Animated Never satisfied Curious Eternal Romantic Creative Devotedly Christian Encouraging Multi-layered Loving Quick Judge Critical Forever evolving View all posts by papillion

One response to “Chasing the Subcontinent…

  • elsbro

    Well that’s because South Asians are very much entrenched in their culture even when they migrate; they’re also very resourceful hence wealthy but wouldn’t compromise their culture, believes and values for anything.
    Marketers know this and would bend over backwards to accommodate them not forgetting also that their population is relatively higher.
    Culture in Ghana is flexible; we don’t hold on to much when we travel, we’d rather blend in so there’s no point in target marketing. Plus we’re comparatively not that many.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: