Because ethnic attitudes and preferences can have a significant influence on the sale of financial products, producers and insurers may be missing out on millions of dollars in premiums by ignoring the ethnic characteristics of customers.

Marketers experienced in selling to a variety of ethnic groups say there are a number of principles that hold true regardless of specific ethnicity, and they make these recommendations.

Pay attention to what’s important to a given community. For instance, Asian professionals and business owners place a high value on family and education. At the same time, they are often keen to avoid risk. Financial products that address all these objectives can be highly appealing, notes Sindy Kong, a divisional vice president with the Dallas office of AXA Financial Inc., New York.

“We design programs for the Asian community that pay attention to all those elements,” she says.

Build relationships within your target group. “Cold calling does not work with most ethnic groups,” observes Kong.

Aggressive mingling at business meetings and other group functions is highly recommended. “Relationships are very important in Asian and other communities,” Kong says. “To build relationships, you have to be in front of people.”

Pay particular attention to identifying and meeting the most prominent individuals in a community, adds Nita Song, president of the ad agency IW Group Inc., Beverly Hills, Calif.

“Often, influentials are ideal in breaking in,” Song observes. “You are as credible as the person introducing you.”

Jim Loretta, principal of Loretta Marketing Group, a Hispanic marketing consulting firm in Miami, attends different Latino Chambers of Commerce meetings and other gatherings of small businesses, ethnic MBA societies, and so on. That enables him to hit the centers of influence of different Latino communities around town.

Being an active member of such groups, rather than simply attending meetings, can pay off big in ethnic marketing, Loretta says.

“Contribute time, effort and even money to the group,” he suggests. “Go to their luncheons and then network, so your face is seen by many people.

“Introductions to family and friends of people you meet is another way to go,” Loretta says. “Ethnic minorities often have extended families, including godparents and uncles several generations removed.”

Be prepared to educate. Many, especially first-generation ?migr?s, need considerable tutoring, points out AXA’s Kong. “A lot don’t understand insurance,” she notes.

“Insurance is complex, and requirements vary from state to state,” agrees Phil Salis, vice president, individual business marketing, MetLife Inc., New York. “You have to give them a lot of information.”

Recognize crucial differences among groups. For instance, be aware that the family is more important within many ethnic groups than for Americans as a whole, experts advise.

When selling long term care to a Hispanic family, for instance, it’s probably a mistake to talk about taking care of parents in a nursing home, notes Salis.

“In certain cultures, putting grandma in a nursing home isn’t done,” he says. “If you are marketing long term care, focus on policies that pay for in-home help, so grandma can stay with you. It’s a much better selling proposition.”

Similarly, he notes, many Asians are heavily savings-oriented. For that reason, their interest in term life insurance tends to be low. Permanent life insurance, however, is often another matter. The idea of accumulating cash value that can be used for crucial life events, such as education, can be strongly appealing.

“The Chinese are the single largest group buying permanent life insurance,” observes Salis.

Look beyond ethnicity. “You also have to look at generations,” says Song. “You can have multigenerational people in one household. Each one’s understanding of insurance needs can be very different.”

Bear in mind, too, that the key person you may need to reach actually could be the youngest one in the family, according to Song.

“The younger people in the household are often the key communicators,” she notes. “A high school student may be the one to explain what you are saying to the parents. He or she is a sort of translator-interpreter.”

Song believes one of the biggest mistakes companies make in ethnic marketing is to assume all they have to do is translate their mainstream message for different ethnic groups.

“It’s convenient to use a single strategy for all segments,” she says. “But it doesn’t work.”