Corporate America Takes On Multilingual PR

Part of a series on the communications industry

Julia Huang runs InterTrend, a marketing company in southern California that focuses on Asian-Americans.

Watch A Wal-Mart Ad In Mandarin

"We say Asian-American markets, [but] it's really not one market," she said in a recent phone conversation. "It's so many markets. It's so many!"

For proof of that, look at the advertising campaign for last year's census. It ran ads in Japanese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Hmong, Hinglish and Taglish. Those last two are combinations of Hindu and English and Tagalog and English.

"You're not really talking about one specific language — like, for example, for the Hispanic market, accents might change but it's still Spanish," Huang said.

That's why ad campaigns home in on Asian-Americans with the largest U.S. populations, says Jane Nakagawa, a senior vice president at InterTrend. The industry uses a strategy it calls "CKV" — "kind of our shortened version of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese," she said.

Those groups are also desirable because they have plenty of newspapers, magazines and local radio and TV stations in their native languages. Marketers sometimes design ads for them that look the same except for the language you see or hear. In one recent Toyota Camry ad, a little boy stands in front of his classroom, showing off his elaborate science project about the family car.

You never see his face when he speaks. The ad ran with different Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese voice-overs.

Nita Song heads IW Group, a firm that specializes in the Asian Pacific American market. She is also president of the Asian American Advertising Federation.

"When a client is targeting multiple Asian segments, let's say Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, they won't necessarily have the budget to do a custom campaign from the ground up for Chinese, for Vietnamese, for Korean," she says.

That's especially true because marketers tend to include both Mandarin and Cantonese in the Chinese category. So that makes four languages to stretch a campaign budget over. That often demands making use of a common theme. It's probably no surprise to hear that education, achievement and family tend to come up as selling points when trying to reach across various Asian American communities.

A recent campaign for Wal-Mart showed multiple generations of Chinese and Vietnamese families hopping into the minivan to shop. Song said for that particular campaign, her firm's research indicated that CKV was not the way to go. Korean-Americans were not included. Research showed they prefer fancier brand names than those on Wal-Mart's shelves.

McDonald's also overlooked CKV for a big campaign starring the photogenic Korean-American golfer Michelle Wie. It used five languages, including different Chinese dialects, but not Vietnamese. Vietnamese consumers get targeted through radio and direct mail, says Vivian Chen, McDonald's marketing manager for Asian-Americans. She says McDonald's used to send out direct mail coupons to Vietnamese households in Vietnamese only.

"That's a lesson we learned," she says. "We used just one language. What happens [is the consumers] collect the coupon and bring it to McDonald's, and the crew members weren't able to read it."

Now, no matter the language, such direct mailers are bilingual. They always include English. These days McDonald's is touring something called the Family Pavilion — a big marketing tent — to Asian-American street festivals around the U.S. It's described by the company as "a celebration of Asian culture," with a lot of red, gold and fuchsia.

All that needs swapping out is the language on the signs.

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