U.S. Census Bureau figures say that, currently, more than 34 million residents in America—at least 12 percent of the total population—weren’t born in the United States. Another 30-plus million are U.S. natives with one or two foreign-born parents. Projections say that by 2050, the number of Hispanic and Asian U.S. residents will triple and that minority populations will make up about one-half of the country’s population.
The United States has long been a magnet for individuals from around the world seeking everything from personal freedoms to financial success. But for a growing number of new arrivals and their offspring, the “American Dream” is not so much to blend into the general population as it is to create their own niche in it.
For most immigrants the old Melting Pot concept of assimilation means surrendering cultural distinctions “to avoid sticking out and becoming a target for discrimination,” says Larry Moskowitz, vice president of strategic marketing at New York-based Kang & Lee Advertising, which specializes in marketing to Asian-American populations. Instead, the goal for most foreign-born residents is acculturation, which Moskowitz defines as “becoming fully functional in the bigger society, while retaining key elements of their own culture.”
“It’s a matter of adding rather than taking away,” he explains.
And one thing that many of them are adding is fast food. Moskowitz quotes a 2005 study in which the Cultural Access Group and Interviewing Service of American (cag/isa Asian American Market Report) white and multicultural respondents which fast-food restaurants they have visited over the past seven days. The research showed that Asian-Americans ate at McDonalds and Pizza Hut more often than did white-, African-, or Hispanic-Americans. Asian Americans also frequented Burger King more often than their white- or African-American counterparts. And, for KFC, they came in a mere 1 percent under African-Americans, the company’s largest consumer group.
In a 2002 survey of its Asian-American constituency conducted by KSCI-TV in Los Angeles, nearly 60 percent of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese respondents said they dined on fast-food meals at least once a week, while 39 percent of Chinese and 36 percent of Koreans visited fast-food restaurants several times a week. In a report last year, Los Angeles–based research firm Cultural Access Group revealed that McDonald’s is the most visited fast feeder among Asian-, Hispanic-, and white-Americans. McDonald’s even beat out local Chinese fast-food options among Asian respondents.
So, while multicultural populations might not be eager to take a swan dive directly into the bubbling melting pot, they are more than willing to immerse themselves in many of America’s culinary experiences. All operators have to do is learn to speak their language, say the experts.
Among Asians in America, 91 percent of Vietnamese, 78 percent of Koreans, 76 percent of Filipinos, 70 percent of Indians, 65 percent of Chinese, and 45 percent of Japanese are foreign-born, according to statistics from Kang & Lee. Many of these new arrivals, as well as their counterparts from Eastern Europe, Africa, South and Central America, the Caribbean, and other countries speak little or no English.
Traditionally, in America, “Hispanic” meant Mexican. Not now. Although Mexicans still constitute the largest Hispanic population group in the U.S., other growing subsets include South and Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and immigrants from Spain itself. Not all of them speak the same dialect. For Brazilians, the native tongue isn’t even generally Spanish; it’s Portuguese.
While, at first, it might appear to be a tall order for retailers to translate everything from television to menuboards into other languages and dialects, information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau to identify the primary populations in any particular market area. In-store observations and surveys can also help to pinpoint target customer groups.
“It’s always more cost effective to capitalize on the customer base you already have,” says Michael Soon Lee, president of Dublin, California-based marketing and consulting group, EthnoConnect. “Find out why they come to you, what they want and like, and, perhaps, what they’d like to find.”
Beyond traditional surveys and focus groups, businesses should do what Stamford, Connecticut marketing consultant Sam Chisholm calls a “reputation assessment,” bringing together local leaders and other key influencers to give a read on perceptions within the community of everything from food to service to employment opportunities and record.
A media assessment is also advisable because first-generation non-English speakers consider in-language newspapers and television and radio programs to be their primary sources of news and information. Interestingly, a large number of second-, third-, and subsequent-generation residents retain that in-language preference. In a survey by Kang & Lee Advertising, 83 percent of Chinese respondents said they preferred in-language media, even though only 65 percent were born in China.
And it’s not simply an issue of language. Asian Indians, who tend to be among the most highly educated populations who arrive here and speak English in about 98 percent of instances, will often relax in the evening by watching satellite television programs with news and entertainment that, whether broadcast in an Indian dialect or not, are geared to their native culture, says Moskowitz.