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."

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