For fund companies seeking to reach out to minority markets, particularly Hispanics or Asian-Americans, language barriers always present a formidable challenge.

Even after a financial institution translates its marketing materials into other languages, it must make sure that the material conveys the right message, the right tone and makes it to the right customers. Someone who speaks Chinese might take offense from a Korean-language brochure, or at the very least will not respond to it.

"You don't want to alienate consumers," said Felipe Korzenny, co-founder of Cheskin, a marketing research and consulting firm based in Redwood Shores, Calif. "For someone to assume you are Chinese when you are Korean, or vice versa, can be offensive."

That is one reason Wells Fargo & Co. is not targeting consumers with bilingual direct mail.

"We don't have the data, and it would be a mistake even if [only] 5% weren't accurate," said Robert Byrne, the director of the San Francisco-based bank's diverse growth segments group. In fact, legally, banks and mutual fund companies are prohibited from asking for a customer's ethnic information, except banks are required to ask the question when making a mortgage, although the borrower can decide not to answer, Bryne said.

Instead, Wells Fargo tries to draw new multicultural customers by advertising in media that caters to them, such as Chinese newspapers or radio stations popular with African-Americans.

Likewise, Wachovia, Bank of America and Citigroup have run focused, bilingual ad campaigns designed to pull people into their branches. These campaigns have included billboards, TV spots and glossy branch brochures.

Some banking companies have dabbled in direct mail. Last year U.S. Bancorp launched its first campaign targeted at prospective Hispanic checking customers. It used a list of its customers selected by census tract and sorted by last name, and a vendor-generated one of people who had identified themselves as Spanish speakers.

The campaign was "successful, [with] one of the higher response rates for this type of offer," said Steve SaLoutos, senior vice president of product management and financial analysis for U.S. Bancorp's consumer bank. In fact, on a response percentage basis, "we exceeded what our expectations were for English-language" direct mail.

Even with database advances, the most common method of identifying potential foreign-language speakers remains getting a list of surnames. Banks and their third-party marketers target some consumers with last names that are commonly tied to a specific ethnicity and try their luck. But that method has an obvious drawback. Not everyone with a Hispanic last name speaks Spanish.

To overcome this obstacle, many institutions use more complicated algorithms purchased from software providers, in which a surname is just one factor taken into consideration. Others factors include first name, address and region. Though getting that extra information reduces the chance of errors, it is not foolproof.

"If you focus too much on geographic location and last name and first name, you could actually be skipping the Hispanics who are not integrated in Hispanic communities," Korzenny said.

Lately, some marketers have been embracing another option: using lists generated by self-selection. 21st Century Marketing, a Farmingdale, N.Y., company that collects and creates direct marketing databases, generates ethnic databases from promotions aimed at particular groups and languages.

For example, it might have a list of people who subscribe to Spanish-language publications in an area, or who have responded to a Spanish-language contest, said Rick Blume, vice president for multicultural marketing, at 21st Century Marketing.

"These people have raised a hand and said they want to respond in Spanish," Blume said. "Number one, it doesn't offend them. Number two, you get a better response, because you are mailing in their language of choice."

But the People who are contacted in their native language are more likely to respond.

"In the Hispanic market, to a Spanish list, the responses are much better," Blume said. A lot of that has to do with clutter. "They get about 1/10th of the mail in their language that consumers get in the general market," he said.

Additionally, banks have an advantage over fund companies trying to get into ethnic marketing in that they can gather data from automated teller machines that offer services in foreign languages.

Some of the country's largest banks have set up Web sites that cater to Spanish speakers.

But foreign-language marketing, on paper or on the Web, have additional risks. Most importantly, both marketers and bankers stressed that the information has to be culturally appropriate, as well as written by a truly native speaker with good verbal skills.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe Now

Access to premium content including in-depth coverage of mutual funds, hedge funds, 401(K)s, 529 plans, and more.

3-Week Free Trial

Insight and analysis into the management, marketing, operations and technology of the asset management industry.