As the Asian-American community grows in Southern California, and Chinese and Korean banks gain assets and recognition, traditional U.S. banks are increasingly trying to snag a piece of their market.
"Let's say we have a 35 percent share of all Californians," said David Bland, vice president of ethnic marketing for Washington Mutual Inc. "We'd love to reach that in the Chinese market."
Washington Mutual, Bank of America Corp. and California Federal Bank all are making efforts to ingratiate themselves to the Asian-American community.
"We were one of the first banks to have Chinese-language ATMs," said Bank of America spokeswoman Juliet Don. "We also have literature in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese."
Larry Trujillo, vice president and community relations manager at Cal Fed, said his bank contributed $200,000 to the Asian Pacific Revolving Loan Fund of Los Angeles and is working with the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Orange County to develop a special community lending program there.
Those efforts are aimed at attracting the business of immigrants who want to start a business but have no credit history, or established minority business owners in search of capital. "There are business owners in the Korean community who don't have the wherewithal or technical training or business background to move to the next level," Trujillo said.
Don said that Bank of America's approach to the Asian-American market is the same as its approach to every minority community. The bank uses minority-owned advertising agencies to create campaigns featuring Asian faces, and it makes sure that its promotional messages are more than mere translations of English marketing campaigns.
For example, past campaigns have included references to feng shui and have featured practitioners of herbal medicine, both prevalent in some Asian cultures.
Bank of America also has Asian-language phone service centers and Asian-designated banking centers around Southern California that employ bilingual workers and offer informational literature.
"The biggest thing we've found is that some people like to be communicated with in their native language," Don said. "Any company that's non-Asian and trying to target these communities has to be as culturally sensitive as it can be."
Bank of America, Cal Fed and Washington Mutual each sponsor traditional Asian celebrations, including events related to the Lunar New Year. In addition, Washington Mutual last year tried out a Chinese-language marketing campaign in 16 predominantly Chinese communities in the Los Angeles area.
The effort utilized Chinese newspaper and radio advertising to push free checking accounts and equity loans. While Bland didn't have specific results of the campaign, he said that branches in those targeted communities outperformed general market locations for the entire three-month campaign. As a result, the campaign was rolled out statewide this year.
Wilson Mach, spokesman for Chinese-owned General Bank, said the Asian-American communities certainly have noticed the American banks' efforts.
"They have been very aggressive in terms of advertising and promotion," said Mach, who also works with the National Association of Chinese American Banks. "They also have signs in Chinese that say 'Hello.'"
Mach said American banks offer services similar to their minority-owned competitors on the retail banking level, but when it comes to business banking, the minority-owned banks are better positioned to serve minority communities.
With the larger banks, Mach said, big decisions about loans and other matters are made at the bank's headquarters, which are not in Chinese, Korean or Latino neighborhoods, he said.
"At General Bank we have this saying: 'We are the real thing,' and we understand the markets better," Mach said. "We have firsthand knowledge of Hong Kong and Taiwan. For us, we are more business-oriented. We respect (American banks) as competitors, but as a real threat? No."
Eduardo Sayan, multicultural marketing manager at Cal Fed, said the bank is interested in gaining business in the Asian-American community but not more so than in any other areas. He said the bank is still spending money on brand awareness in Southern California and, although it offers Chinese-language services and sponsors Asian-American community events, the full push is yet to come.
"We do have a thorough understanding of the demographics of the market," Sayan said. "It's just a matter of allocating the support."
Washington Mutual hasn't taken aim at the Korean community directly, but Bland believes Korean customers are very business- and credit-oriented. Bland said that the Korean ethnic group is tougher to crack, in part because of loyalty to Korean banks.
So, if the banking competition seems to be heating up in Asian-American communities these days, just wait until the new census is released.
"Is there increased focus? Sure. A fight? I don't know; that's a little strong," Bland said. "But as the numbers expand, it becomes more worth going after."
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