Fast Food’s “Ethnic Insights”

NEW YORK – There is no denying the fast-food industry’s contribution to America’s obesity epidemic. Now, Asians and Asian-Americans could follow on this path, as major fast-food chains like McDonald’s target them disproportionately.

Although Asian-Americans amount to only 6% of the United States’ population, the marketing magazine Advertising Age reports that for every nine focus groups that McDonald’s organizes, two (22%) are Asian-focused, while another four center on other minorities. As a result, the strategies employed by McDonald’s and other brands could affect the health of immigrants and minority groups more than that of other segments of the US population.

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At the Asia Society’s Diversity Leadership Forum earlier this month in New York, McDonald’s Director of Ethnic Marketing Vivien Chen described how the company has focused its marketing on the ethnic consumer. McDonald’s has adopted a so-called “30-40-50” approach, because ethnic minorities (not only Asian-Americans) represent 30% of its overall business; 40% of its revenue; and 50% of its business from customers under the age of 18.

Chen claims that its strategy – called “Leading with ethnic insights” – shows the company’s commitment to the Asian-American consumer. Indeed, McDonald’s – and other restaurants that sell products that contribute substantially to obesity – likely will continue to target this demographic.

McDonald’s has covered its bases on the issue, capitalizing on the link between customers’ homelands and the US market. For example, many Chinese-American customers “have their first Big Mac in China,” Chen said, “and we want to continue that relationship.”

In fact, this link represents the scope of Asia’s incipient obesity problem. While First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative attempts to curtail sharply the amount of unhealthy fast food that Americans consume, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a campaign to crack down on “super-sized” sodas, Asia is witnessing the opposite trend.

Unhealthy, processed foods are more readily available now than ever before, and rising middle classes in China, India, and throughout the region can better afford them. Yum Brands, for example, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, now receives 44% of its revenue from China.

While recent reports indicate that growth in Asians’ fast-food consumption is slowing, the impact across the region is significant. The Journal of Obesity reports that in India, as fast-food consumption – including sweetened carbonated drinks – has increased, so has the prevalence of obesity.

Moreover, because this tendency reflects fundamental shifts in the way that people eat, it will be difficult to reverse. Almost 60 years after the first McDonald’s restaurant opened, nearly one in three American children are overweight or obese, owing to a range of factors, including fewer home-cooked meals. The fast-food industry makes it cheap and easy to eat out – a difficult habit to break.

Even as fast-food chains have become a lightning rod for criticism on the topic of obesity, they continue to attract consumers within America’s tight-knit minority communities, particularly among their young people, who are less likely to reach their full potential if they are burdened by health problems associated with obesity.

In much the same way that cigarette companies shifted their focus to the developing world when regulators clamped down on their marketing practices in America, fast-food companies seem to be trying to capitalize on those portions of the global consumer base that have little exposure to health campaigns in their native languages. Obama’s “Let’s Move” Web site, for example, is available only in English and Spanish.

Indeed, the fast-food industry may have greater reach in customers’ native languages than heath-education campaigns do. And, as US marketing campaigns focus on first-generation consumers – those raised on Big Macs abroad, without knowledge of the associated health risks – some members of minority groups now spend a substantial portion of their disposable income at fast-food restaurants.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, Asian-Americans – the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country – have, on average, the highest income and best education in the country. This otherwise successful minority group must not become mired in the consequences of an unhealthy diet, especially at a time when the majority of the population is more aware than ever of the dangers.

McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in China in 1990, and hopes to reach 2,000 restaurants in the country by 2013. If a half-century of experience in the US is an accurate guide, the waistlines of Asian consumers – in Asia and America – are poised to expand in step with the fast-food industry’s increasingly ethnic-focused marketing, with serious potential health consequences.