It was still February of last year, months before soapboxing by the two candidates reached a fever pitch. Donald Trump, recognising the importance of Indian American voters to his re-election chances, launched a five-figure digital ad buy targeting them. Not to be left behind, his Democratic rival Joe Biden too poured in the greenbacks. The ad blitz by the two competing campaigns was testament to the clout of the community that is among the wealthiest and most educated of all immigrant groups in the US.

Senthil Govindan, the founder and CEO of the Bengaluru-based online advertising firm Datawrkz, had seen this coming. Two years ago, he recognised the potential the Indian American demographic holds for the marketing and advertising industry and began offering targeting campaigns. Until then, Datawrkz had mainly worked with mainstream advertising agencies in the US and had run a few campaigns targeting Indian Americans through intermediaries.

“Reaching Indian Americans will never be a one-size-fits-all option,” said Govindan. “There must be...depth in reaching sub-groups...and an awareness of the different generations of Indian Americans and what they most positively react to.”

Research by the Asian American Advertising Federation shows that 43% of Indian Americans engage better with advertising that is shown alongside culturally relevant content. Forty-five percent of Indian Americans are “likely to pay attention when ads included celebrities or people with Indian or Asian origins”, the research says.

Among the advertisers who strategically target Indian Americans are companies who want to reach affluent segments (automotive manufacturers, telecoms, media, banks, financial service providers and airlines), states with sizeable Indian American populations, and political campaigns.

“Given the clout that Indian Americans are developing on multiple fronts – economic, social, and political, among others – building a niche to target Indian Americans is an idea whose time has come,” said Govindan. spoke to him about Datawrkz, and what targeting Indian Americans means in the advertising industry. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Senthil Govindan, the founder and CEO of Datawrkz. Credit: Suraj Sharma.

How big is the Indian-American market for advertisers in the US?
The Indian American community is close to three-million strong. It should be kept in mind that this number has grown greatly over the past three decades from a baseline of approximately 450,000. A significant percentage of this pool of recent migrants grew up in India before moving to the US, and retains a strong emotional attachment to Indian culture, sports and news. While all Indian Americans can be targeted by advertisers, those who belong to this immigrant generation are the most likely to respond to messaging that targets the Indian American community.

What do we know about the community in terms of affluence, interests, etc?
If you consider statistical averages, Indian Americans are the most highly educated (with three times more college degrees than the American average) ethnic group in the US with the highest income (at around twice that of the American average). This is, in part, because the overwhelming majority of Indian Americans came to the US to work on H-1B visa, which has demanding qualification requirements.

Interests of immigrants are a broad reflection of the country they left and the one they reside in. It’s not unusual for Indian Americans to be passionate fans of American football, global football (known as soccer in the US) and cricket. They are just as likely to watch the latest summer Hollywood blockbuster as the biggest Bollywood superhit. Trying to predict where in the spectrum of assimilation a particular Indian American might lie is a futile task. Suffice to say, the community as a whole is interested in current events, politics and pop culture in India as well as the US.

Has awareness of Indian Americans as a target group risen in recent times?
Absolutely. I studied and lived in the US from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s and have been travelling back to the US on work consistently over the past five years. While Indian Americans were seen mostly through the lens of the software developer and physician stereotypes during my initial days in the US, I now see them breaking into a vast array of fields – entertainment, politics, business, entrepreneurship, among others. In my opinion, a lot of the credit for this expansion of the Indian American profile rests with the first generation (kids of the immigrant generation). Without the shackles of having to spend their prime career experimentation years in the field they studied, children of Indian American immigrants have been able to seek out new horizons. This has had a direct impact on the awareness level of Indian Americans. A second key component of the growth of awareness is the rise of the immigrant generation in their respective fields to levels where they are considered among the top of their field – whether you consider academics such as Raghuram Rajan or captains of corporate powerhouses such as Indra Nooyi, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella.

Is there any reason to treat them differently from Asian Americans?
From a marketing standpoint, one of the key differences between Indian Americans and other Asian Americans resides in the sheer recency of the growth of the Indian American group. If you look at the other major Asian American groups – Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans and so on – their migration to the US in large numbers started much earlier. Given that Indian Americans are currently in their first expansion wave, the ratio of Indian Americans born outside the US versus those who are born in the US is different from the ratio for other Asian American demographics.

What does targeting Indian Americans mean in the advertising industry?
Indian Americans in the US are usually clubbed within the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community. When you are catering specifically to the Indian American community, you need to drill down further and a great deal of cultural context is needed here. To cater to Indian audiences coming from different regions of the country, understanding the significance of regional festivals and cultures is also a bonus for us.

For the most part, what we have observed is that the industry targets Indian Americans by building ad creatives featuring Indians and running festival-specific messaging.

I will talk about an example here. One of our recent projects was the promotion of a Bollywood movie that was being released in the US. There are specific movie theatres that run Bollywood movies, so one of the most important steps in our process was identifying pockets of people of Indian descent that live in the vicinity of these theatres to help draw in a larger audience.

What are the needs and benefits of developing a niche within the advertising industry that caters to targeting Indian Americans?
The cultural knowledge required to target Indian Americans – or even South Asians in the US – is significant… It takes a lifetime of immersion in the culture to understand the diversity of languages, subcultures, festivals and traditions within what many people see as a monolithic bloc. Given the clout that Indian Americans are developing on multiple fronts – economic, social, and political, among others – building a niche to target Indian Americans is an idea whose time has come.

What are the mediums that you work with to make sure that these targeted ads are delivered to the focused audience? What are the challenges involved in the processes?
We work with multiple channels to get ads in front of the right audiences. Keeping in mind that many Indian Americans keep track of what’s happening in India, we leverage online publishers to reach them when they are reading about Indian news – politics, culture, sports, and entertainment. While the largest Indian media houses help achieve broad reach, we also work with regional publishers from across the country to ensure that we are increasing both reach and frequency among Indian Americans. When trying to build and deliver regional language messaging, regional publishers become the go-to options to help us get our message across to the right subsets of Indian Americans. In addition to this, Facebook (and Instagram) provide ways in which we are able to target people based on the languages they speak and where they were born.

Can you tell us about your clients that target Indian Americans?
It is mostly advertisers who want to reach an affluent segment and Indian Americans who buy their products. This ranges from automotive manufacturers, telecoms, media or entertainment firms, banks, financial products, and airlines. Government departments in states, where Indian Americans are a sizeable part of the population, also run ad campaigns targeting this segment. Interestingly, a niche that expanded its interest in Indian Americans in 2020 is political campaigns – probably a sign that there is awareness of the ethnic group’s increasing clout.

What does this process mean for the advertising industry at large?
Reaching Indian Americans is never going to be a one-size-fits-all option. There must be breadth in channels used, depth in reaching sub-groups within the demographic, and awareness of the different generations of Indian Americans and what they would most positively react to. As brands court Indian Americans in a larger way, the advertising industry will need to either build cultural awareness of the demographic or bring partners on board who are able to do so.