Who's the Customer?

I work with a lot of Asian companies who want to sell to “Americans.” I figure that’s why they’re doing business in the US. In the last two weeks, I’ve talked to or have been contacted regarding marketing projects. My first question is who do you want to sell to? 9 times out of 10 the answer is Americans. Then I’m the one you want to talk to! The next question they ask is, "do you speak Vietnamese, Japanese, Mandarin, etc.?" I answer "No." The conversation/interview usually pauses here. When I mention "I thought you wanted to sell to Americans and I understand Asian products & culture, and a marketing expert all in one", I get a funny look on their faces or no answer over the phone. I'm not the typical Asian.

I understand that they want to hire someone that “Fits” on the team, understands the customs, culture, and is an easy addition to your company. But business is business and I thought they want to grow the business in the US. Why hire someone who hasn't worked for an American CPG company, grew up in a diverse culture, understands the marketplace, and has marketing in his blood? In addition to being outspoken, truthful, and thinks outside of the box, I'm very different from what they had in mind.

If I was to open a business in say Hong Kong and marketed it like I would in the US, I would be laughed at and the comments would be that I don’t know anything about the Hong Kong market. Wouldn’t I hire a marketer from Hong Kong to be my expert? Makes sense to me…

Here’s an example: About 3 years ago, I worked with a Korean based company with their 1st US location. The president told me that he wanted to sell to Americans and needed my help. Before the restaurant opened, we had a tasting, except for me the rest of the testers were Korean. Maybe I misunderstood the president and he meant Korean-Americans. After the tasting, everyone raved about the food. My reaction wasn’t too enthusiastic, there wasn't a problem with the food, but it wasn’t going to sell to Americans. No problem if they were to cater toward the Korean taste, but that's not the direction from the president. The chef had never worked in LA and didn’t know the American taste. After I mentioned my comments to the group, I was basically out of a job, since I bruised his ego and menu. Having worked with a wide range of chefs, they all say they want to hear comments, but they don’t. Once the restaurant opened, I drove by on a Friday night and they were already closed before 10 pm, not a good sign. What they should have done was to Americanize their Korean style menu and marketed it toward Americans. They didn't do any marketing.

The majority of issues facing Asian companies isn't the products, it’s the marketing. If people don’t know what it is, they won’t buy it. I took a group of culinary students to an Asian factory for a tour. There were two students from Central America, the marketing guy asked why they thought this product didn’t sell in the Hispanic market? They didn’t know, so I asked if the product was labeled in Spanish? He said no, and I said that should answer your question. Rather than asking me more marketing questions, he stopped since he was probably embarrassed.

I know that that I’m American who looks Asian and doesn’t speak the language. But, the thing that they’re missing is that I know the American market and have 10 years of experience with one of the best know brands in the world. I’ve developed menus that have blown away chefs and restaurant owners with over 30 years of experience, they’re still trying to figure out why it’s working. But because I don’t speak an Asian language, they pass me up. Just for the record, a number of these companies have contacted me and made me jump through hoops. I understand that they want to squeeze as much free information from me as possible and then toss me away. I'm not a YES man and will tell them the truth and I know they don't want to hear it. So, I don't understand why they ask me? Either HIRE ME or just keep moving on…


I find that Asians undersestimate the need for cross-cultural fluency as much or more than Americans and this post confirms that. Still, I know in Japan "fitting in with the team" would be valued above other things that might be more logical to us. They also, as you well know, value tradition in a way that most here find hard to fathom. Tradition is not 200 years of doing something one way, it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years doing something one way.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
Meowmi said…
I work for a dot-com owned by Asians, and though the business is doing well, the business unit I work for isn't--partially because of this very thing. When we launched, it was with a Cantonese manager who insisted that everything get OK'd by her, including what promotions ran. Now, not only is that a really bad idea when you're trying to be a success, but when the top dog thinks like an Asian, but the business is selling to Americans, you're going to have problems.

Just wanted to let you know that what you say applies in more industries than just food service.
Jay Eats said…
Thanks for your comments! Agreed, I used to work in consumer goods and the same story. Isn't it frustrating when you're being lead by someone who doesn't know the marketplace?

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