Desi Rising: South-Asian Demo Sees U.S. Economic, Media Clout Grow

Last fall in new york at the first annual summit of the South Asians in Media and Marketing Association, Rishad Tobaccowala appeared as one of many high-caliber media industry speakers to discuss the burgeoning and highly desirable South-Asian media market.

The chief innovations officer at advertising agency Publicis Groupe Media as well as CEO of Denuo, the Chicago-based think tank of digital advertising applications for the future, Tobaccowala walked away from the two-day event in amazement.

“I’d never been to a conference like that,” he says. “Most of the time I fly in, give my speech and then leave. But I sat through every session, and instead of being bored to tears, I learned a lot. People were sharing and educating each other about the growth of the South-Asian market. Hundreds of people showed up and they all had so much pride and interest in connecting with each other for the first time.”

Underlining the conference’s raison d’etre is that the South-Asian population, with more than 2 million people comprising the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Nepali communities, was one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the U.S. from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As a media target, the Desis–the colloquial term for diasporic South Asians derived from the Hindi word desh, which literally means “of the country”–represent a premium market. It is a highly affluent, well-educated and consumer-oriented population. Sixty-four percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and one in 10 Indian Americans is a millionaire, per the Census Bureau. The median household income of South Asians is more than $64,000 (higher than any other ethnic/race groups and 50 percent higher than the national average).

“A lot of media business is just waiting to be created,” says Rajan Shah, one of the co-founders of SAMMA and president, co-founder of New York entertainment marketing agency Phenomenon. “The number of ad pages in South-Asian print has increased to staggering levels. And within the past two years, the advertising has begun to come from outside the South-Asian marketing community. Companies like Lowe Worldwide, the Home Depot, The New York Times Magazine, Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Delta Airlines are all advertising to this audience.”

One of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the U.S., Indian Americans, who represent 89 percent of the Desi population, increased from 815,000 in 1990 to nearly 1.7 million in 2000, a 106 percent rise, per the Census Bureau. Even so, that population makes up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population versus the Latino communities, which made up 12.5 percent in 2000. Both figures have no doubt since risen.

“The South-Asian and especially the Indian-American numbers will show another marked increase in the 2010 census. And even though they represent just a fraction of the Latino population, South Asians have disposable income in the area of $90 billion,” says Shah, whose estimate is based on the $76 billion figure the market research firm Cultural Access Group arrived at in its 2005 report. “What the South Asians lack in size, they make up for with purchasing power.”


Tobaccowala graduated from the University of Bombay with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, moved to the U.S. in 1980 and later graduated from the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago. He remembers well when Indian-American TV programming was relegated to obscure channels and aired at most for five or six hours on a weekend.

Now there are several channels that not only transmit shows from India but also, like Zee TV, the India-based network that launched in the U.S. in 1998 and is the largest media franchise serving the South-Asian diaspora here (see sidebar this page), have set up shop in the U.S. with Desi viewership in mind. Tobaccowala also points out that in the old days there was very little general marketing to the Desi communities beyond the South-Asian media. “But that’s all changed because there are more South Asians in positions of real marketing influence in the U.S. today,” he says.

Tobaccowala traces the Desi community’s development to three waves. The first, between 1960 and ’90, consisted of Indian migrants who came to the U.S. as doctors, business students and engineers and decided to stay. In the second phase, from 1990 to 2003, people from the first generation started to rise in the ranks of such companies as McKinsey, PepsiCo and Motorola. Plus, he estimates that some 25 percent to 30 percent of those creating the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley were South Asians.

“Simultaneously the country of India was opening its markets and importing to the U.S. its cultural artifacts–fashion, music, movies, the whole world of Bollywood,” says Tobaccowala. “Plus native-born Indian Americans began to come into their own and started to affect change.”

The third phase of the Desi movement for media and market muscle began in 2003 and continues today. “Because of the Internet, large elements of Indian culture are seeping in and thousands of engineers and doctors from India are coming to the U.S.,” he says.

As for marketing to this third phase of Desis, Tobaccowala says the opportunity is prime. They have the money, they have the positions of authority, they understand English and they are thoroughly westernized. “Plus, Indians by nature grow up in a gregarious world,” he says.
“They like to be connected. Family is a big thing. It’s not unusual for people to shop for a car as a family.”

Another member of the first major wave of Indian Americans, Jay Venkatraman, who works in IT at Credit-Suisse in New York, has seen the growth of the South-Asian market and the mainstream acceptance of such high-profile Indians as tabla master Zakir Hussain, CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta and Bollywood stars like actress/model Aishwarya Rai advertising beauty products.

“The Indian businesses have taken off with 24-hour satellite channels and a lot of newspapers, most of which carry advertising by the Indian community,” he says. “But in the past few years you can see how American businesses are advertising, mostly in print and on TV.” He says that ads geared for South-Asian audiences from finance companies like MetLife, New York Life and Nationwide are very popular.

Case in point: The Asian-American advertising agency APartnership has been working with Nationwide on three campaigns in the past two years, designing and producing original content for print and TV advertising specifically targeting the South-Asian audience and readership in key markets with large population numbers such as the New York tri-state area, San Francisco/Silicon Valley and Chicago.

“The South-Asian market is growing fast with its affluent consumer segment,” says Edward Chang, vp, account director, APartnership. “Nationwide asked us to partner with them to develop a strategy to generate interest and build brand awareness in the South-Asian market.”

One of the major areas of the first campaign involved creating humorous TV spots based on the Life Comes at You Fast theme. The TV spots aired on South-Asian specific cable channels such as Zee TV. Not only were the commercials a hit with Desis, but they also found life beyond the targeted market on YouTube. “We didn’t purposefully post those ads there. It happened organically,” says Chang.

In addition to the TV spots and newspaper ads in major newspapers serving the Desi community (including the India Abroad weekly, which has a total paid average circ of 36,401 in the six months ended Sept. 30, 2007, per the Audit Bureau of Circulations), APartnership developed an out-of-home campaign, including advertising in cinemas that show Bollywood films and at South-Asian events. “We even had a float in last year’s India Independence Day Parade in New York,” Chang notes.

APartnership also worked with Cadillac on newspaper ads and a few TV spots in selected markets such as Chicago and New York. “The dealer groups approached us because they were seeing a lot of South-Asian faces in their showrooms,” says Chang. “They looked at the income data and saw a lot of potential in targeting that market.”


Auto and finance are key categories that the upstart bimonthly magazine The Indian American, which launched in 2006, hopes to attract, says editor Sunil Adam. “Most of the publications for South Asians are tabloid newspapers, so we’re hoping to provide glossy coverage of cultural issues like assimilation and lifestyle trends,” he says. “Our coverage is still evolving, but in the meantime, we have an ad team in place, and they are fanning out into the market.”

While the magazine is still in a promotional phase (with an in-house estimated circulation of 40,000 nationwide), Adam is targeting the elite of the Indian-American community. The magazine hired a list broker to hone in on an upscale demographic: doctors, computer engineers and entrepreneurs with university degrees and household income above $150,000. “We are a strong consumer market,” Adam says, then adds, “In fact we are an irresistible market. Indian Americans like to live an extravagant lifestyle. Within a few years of living here, you can count on us wanting to buy a mansion in the suburbs.”

Even though South-Asian media and marketing is set to break out into a boom phase, there have been setbacks, specifically when MTV spinoff MTV Desi was shuttered a year ago after launching in July 2005. The network targeted the Desi community and featured videos of electronic tabla music, Gujarati hip-hop, Bollywood clips and docs profiling Indian and Indian-American notables.

Marnie Black, senior vp of MTV U.S. Communications, explains that MTV World–which included the MTV Desi, MTV Chi and MTV K nets–“was not meeting internal expectations due to insufficient distribution and revenue.” Yet she notes, “We are continuing to look at other business models to superserve the Asian-American and Indian-American youth audiences.” Though disappointed in the channel’s shutdown, Shah says the “fact that MTV is looking for even better ways to tackle this market only shows the vibrancy and significance of the South-Asian and Indian-American market. We can’t learn and grow this market without bold initiatives such as MTV World.”

Shah says the second annual SAMMA summit, which takes place in New York Sept. 26-27, will have an even greater focus on global entertainment and digital media “where South Asians are taking leadership [roles] in the U.S. and across the world.” He’s expecting more than 300 mainstream and South-Asian media execs to attend, with speakers including players from Time Warner, MTV, DirecTV and NBC. At this early stage of planning, Shah says that PepsiCo, The Home Depot and Nationwide have already signed on as platinum-level sponsors.

As for why there are so many South Asians in the U.S. media industry, Shah says, “Indians are inherently able to understand different consumer media interests, given our history of settling around the world and living in two different cultures at one time. We have a unique ability to see today’s complex consumers through a multidimensional lens.”

South-Asian Slate

Founded in 1992 in India, Zee TV was the first Hindi satellite channel. It was a significant moment in that country, which up until that time had no private television, only government-run channels. Six years later Zee TV was launched in the U.S. and today stands as the leading network serving the South-Asian audience here.

Available on premium tiers on satellite (Dish Network, DirecTV) and cable (Comcast, Cablevision’s Optimum iO, Time Warner, among others), Zee TV’s ad revenue has soared in the past eight years. “It rose 1,500 percent and our growth target for this year is 30 percent to 35 percent,” says Venkatasubramanian (who goes by a single name), president of Zee TV USA Inc., who won’t divulge actual revenue. “We have a laser-sharp focus on the South-Asian community.”

One of several nets serving the English-speaking Desi market, Zee TV, its executive boasts, counts the most subscribers and is No. 1 in total revenue (including ad revenue). Its programming includes Bollywood movies and music, news, cricket matches, as well as scripted and nonscripted shows (including Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, a talent series that has been in existence for 12 years–long before American Idol–and ranks as one of India’s most popular programs). Most of the net’s shows have been poached from television in India and in some cases Pakistan and the U.K., which has a sizeable Desi community.

Currently five channels are under the network umbrella, including flagship Zee TV, Zee Cinema (featuring Hindi movies), Zee Sports, and two that serve communities speaking Gujarati and Punjabi. The network plans to launch another five niche channels in the coming year. Advertisers include small retail Desi stores and South-Asian corporations as well as an increasing number of advertisers from outside the South-Asian community seeking this affluent and well-educated demo. Categories include financial and insurance (MetLife, New York Life, Nationwide, Prudential, State Farm), retail (Wal-Mart) and auto (Chrysler, Volvo, Mercedes Benz).

Plans for Zee TV’s future include original programming like soaps that are uniquely Desi and an American edition of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, with judges from India weighing in on talent gathered from a round of auditions in various U.S. cities this spring. The 13 to 15 episodes will air in June and July on Zee TV.

“In our first decade, Zee TV brought the homeland to people who were living away from home,” says Venkat. “Just as the personalities of people living here have morphed as they assimilate, so too will Zee TV reflect and become more relevant to the unique experiences of South Asians.” —DO