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How to Build an Asian-American Following

Sept. 22, 2016
A guitarist of Far East Movement, an Asian American band, playing on stage at an ISA event
The concert of Far East Movement, the first Asian-American musical group to land a No. 1 ranking on Billboard Hot 100 chart. (Photo credit):

Asian American buying power is growing and offers untapped opportunities.

As one of the fastest-growing racial groups in the United States and the highest-ranked in education and income, brands and companies are trying to crack the formula of how to capture the attention and loyalty of a historically underrated audience: Asian Americans.

Because they come from a continent that consists of more than 60 percent of the global population and that is made up of more than 40 countries, the sheer size and diversity of this audience segment may seem daunting for businesses seeking to identify and connect with it.

Those that have been successful in accessing this powerful market share the key takeaways and strategic insights on attracting and retaining an Asian-American following.

Still a relatively untapped market

Despite having a presence in American history, Asian Americans have historically received little attention and consideration from U.S. mass marketers. “This is a completely untapped market,” says Michael Halberstam, chairman at ISA, SoapBoxSample and Q-insights. “It has been ignored for the most part – up until the past 10 years.”

As a pioneer and a leader of agencies that specialize in multicultural marketing and demographic research, Halberstam believes that brands that invest heavily in and demonstrate a commitment to understanding the Asian-American audience will reap big rewards.

Three young men on stage at an ISA Live event
ISA TV is a hub for Asian-American culture, entertainment and lifestyle. (Photo credit):
"Unlike the Hispanic community, [which is] homogenous by language, brands must commit to each of these Asian-American groups separately."

- Michael Halberstam

“If a company wants to commit to this market, they need to bring in someone who has a cultural understanding of the community,” says Halberstam. “They also have to understand that there’s more than one community.”

The challenges posed by the Asian-American market involve variances in the culture, language and customs used by each Asian subgroup.

“The five biggest Asian-American groups in the U.S. today are Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Hindi,” continues Halberstam. “Unlike the Hispanic community, [which is] homogeneous by language, brands must commit to each of these Asian-American groups separately.”

Segmentation and commonalities

“You can’t sweep a broad brushstroke over Asian Americans,” says Karen Sinisi, director of sales and marketing for Ethnic Technologies. “It’s about segmentation and being culturally competent. You have to really look at the group that you want to reach, and reach them in different ways. Think about what’s going to resonate with each of these Asian groups.”

As a director at a firm with more than 30 years of industry experience and two awards in multicultural research and data analysis, Sinisi also points out the silver lining – the characteristics shared by these Asian subgroups. “The existence of multigenerational households and great emphases on family and education across all Asian groups are the biggest things that resonate culturally across the board.”

" If you’re going to do anything, emphasizing family, education and brand recognition will be good things to target."

- Karen Sinisi

Mother and daughter paying at grocery store checkout
(Photo credit): Images

While Sinisi warns businesses not to depend on demographic commonalities to reach the Asian audience, “if you’re going to do anything, emphasizing family, education and building brand recognition will be good things to target,” she says.

Asian-American representation and followers in media

Much of the media narrative in the United States remains one-dimensional and Asian-American representation, albeit growing, is still scarce. “Asian Americans are the fastest-growing adult population in the U.S. today, which means that featuring Asians in mainstream media is going to grow,” says Sinisi.

From Aziz Ansari’s Emmy nominations for his most recent show, “Master of None,” to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy debut on Netflix, the presence of Asian Americans on TV has risen, and, according to Nielsen’s most recent report on Asian-American consumers, they are increasingly engaged on streaming platforms and mobile devices.

What about building an Asian-American presence in the media and social media followers?

The musical group Far East Movement released their hit single “Like a G6” in 2010 and became the first Asian-American musical group to land a No. 1 ranking on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

With a successful music career, the group has since expanded its focus to increase the awareness and popularity of Asian-American artists. In 2014, the musical group partnered with Wong Fu Productions LLC to create the International Secret Agents (ISA)TV and ISA Live with the goal of empowering and uniting the Asian-American community. Since then, the founders’ and ISATV’s combined networks have gained more than 2.5 million YouTube subscribers and more than 790 million YouTube views. “We really want to help create an identity for Asian Americans in the media,” says Kevin Nishimura, an artist from Far East Movement.

“Overall, breaking into the mainstream is harder for everyone,” Nishimura says, referring to the current entertainment industry. “In the beginning, none of the record labels wanted to feature ‘G6,’ so we decided to just put it out there for free. It’s funny, because when we got feedback from people on YouTube and Myspace, they [said] that our song was really one of the first songs to go viral online and make it to the top charts. People are able to get attention and internet success regardless of ethnicity, and it’s an even playing field now.”

Wong Fu Productions has created a number of short films and documentaries casting Asian-American youth and has created a considerable following by using specific puns and situations that the rising group of Asian millennials can identify with.

ISA TV and ISA Live function as platforms to create and engage with a growing Asian-American following. When asked about how they financed their projects and transitioned to becoming mentors, James Roh, another artist from Far East Movement, believes, “Everything is a gamble, and sometimes you never do see a return. Even so, every penny that we make, we put it right back into one of our projects and reinvest in our art and passion.”

In terms of new music, Far East Movement is planning to release a new album soon. In the near future, the group has been collaborating with Cherry Tree Records on a side project called “Cool Water,” which is reminiscent of hip-hop and chill music from the ‘90s.

Regardless of the industry, service or product, Asian Americans are making their presence felt and they are a demographic that’s here to stay. Brands that want to gain popularity and an Asian-American following will need to draft a tailored approach that is sensitive to the cultural values of both the specific Asian subgroup being targeted and also to the West.

As Sinisi optimistically puts it, “Everybody has something to add in the conversation, and I see more Asian-American representation in the U.S. as a positive trend.”

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