Asian-American Markets

Success Lies In Knowing The Differences

By Marcella De Simone

People who have immigrated to mainland United States from Asian countries have settled for the most part in three locations: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the New York/New Jersey area. The diversity of the regions largely accounts for the differences in Asian-American communities, says Gary Schulte.

Chinese people in New York are much different from Chinese people in San Francisco, the senior vice president of MetLife Financial Services Western Zone, Danville, Calif., says.

“And even they are different from the Chinese in southern California, just as the Caucasian markets are different in those regions,” he says. “The Chinese in northern California are the most sophisticated in the country.”

This is largely due to the concentration of high-tech positions in northern California, Schulte says. Many Chinese-Americans “who have a propensity to do well in the high-tech arena” have migrated to northern California, he says.

And regional differences are not all that set Asian-Americans apart from one another. Their native cultures are diverse as well, says Sally Mak, corporate vice president, New York Life, New York. She says agents should keep in mind that Asian-Americans have different languages, different holidays and a history marked by conflict between the nations.

“They may look quite similar, so agents shouldnt assume they are Korean or Chinese; they could be offended,” Mak says. “The best way is to ask what their ethnicity is and not to make an assumption.”

Ray Ting, managing director of Ray Ting and Associates, an office of MetLife Financial Services in City of Industry, Calif., says that although it is important to be aware of differences, it also behooves insurance agents and financial planners to know which values Asian-Americans share.

For instance, Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans have the same entrepreneurial spirit, he says.

“The Chinese especially make up a large number of small business owners,” Ting says. “Its not unusual for a family of three generations to man a business, a liquor store, a doughnut shop, a mini-market or a fast-food shop.

“Koreans are the same; its a very large network of small-business people.”

Most Asian immigrants tend to work for themselves and therefore dont have sophisticated financial plans with company-provided benefits, Ting says.

“Many times they dont have retirement plans, so pockets of opportunity exist for us to penetrate,” he says.

“We go in with investment products for retirement and pensions and we go into family security programs. We talk about how we can tie in family security with their investment plan so they dont have to deal with too many brokers and agents, but rather one agent for all products.”

Other values common to many Asian-Americans are that, for the most part, they have close family ties, a higher-than-average savings rate and respect for elder members of the family, Mak says. They also esteem a college education above most other things as well as the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, she adds.

Knowing this, it is hardly surprising that the cash accumulation feature of permanent life products makes them particularly appealing to the Asian sentiment, Mak says. Term life products are generally not perceived as valuable. “It has to do with [Asian-Americans] higher-than-average savings rate,” she says.

However, Schulte warns that life sales are not always easy in this market because the purchase of such products is usually seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea is that “if you buy life insurance youre going to die,” he says.

Mak concurs. Agents should know that talking to people of Chinese descent about death “is a no-no, so we say if something happens instead of death in our marketing materials,” she says. “We dont want to offend our readers.”

When New York Life began using in-language materials, it used straight translations, which worked poorly, Mak says.

For example, the word “participating” in “participating policies” directly translated does not make sense, she says.

Now the translations are “culturally aware,” Mak says. This means not only that the phrases are translated in a meaningful way, but also that the materials depict “faces with the right ethnicity.”

Understanding values can shed light on why a product has or lacks appeal. For example, respect for ones elders and having close family ties are believed to be the main reasons long-term care insurance, a product growing in popularity in the Caucasian market, is slow to catch on in the Asian-American market, Schulte says.

“Asian-Americans take care of the elderly at home, not in a facility, so the kind of product you want to sell is one with home-care features,” he says.

“Annuities have huge potential because Asian-Americans are great savers and cautious with their money,” says Schulte. “Yet we dont do as well as we intend to because Asian-Americans understand the value of money in a bank CD, but we havent showed them the value of annuities yet.”

Size and branding are “big features” in the Asian-American market, according to Schulte.

Asian-Americans “like knowing theyre doing business with a national brand,” he says.

Asian-Americans are also “very receptive to local sponsorship. Like politics, you win it or lose it at the local level, not the national level,” Schulte says.

Advertising on ethnic-specific radio stations, ethnic newspapers and TV stations does much toward reaching the market, he says, as well as supporting various ethnic community celebrations, like The Spring Festival and Lunar New Year.

Mak agrees its important to show that the company knows what Asian-Americans concerns are by making the company a part of the community.

To that end, New York Life sponsored the publication of a bilingual school safety guide that it distributed to parents of school children, Mak says.

Thats “key to being successful, people appreciate that,” she says. “If you do it from a purely business standpoint, its a hard sell and it turns people off.”

Schulte adds, “that type of activity really pays big dividends in the Asian market.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 9, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.