At first glance it looks like a big, not-to-be-missed audience. The number of ethnic consumers in the UK is just short of four-and-a-half million people. Of course, things are never as simple as they might sound. "Ethnic" includes so many different nationalities and cultures that the truth is that to reach a sizeable chunk you need to get a really good idea of your target and spend a fair whack on media.
But that doesn't mean that advertisers who ignore the ethnic audience aren't missing a lucrative trick.
The largest ethnic group in the UK is Asians, which make up 4 per cent of the total UK population. Apart from the numbers, the Asian culture has other, significant characteristics which make it tempting for advertisers.
Asians are generally more flash with their cash. They are also recognised to be "early adopters" of technology. Dig deeper and there are opportunities for specific markets: Asian cooking is often very oily and households tend to wash their way through buckets of washing-up liquid. Which sounds a likely target for the detergent giants.
But tapping into the Asian community, or any other ethnic audience, is not going to be easy or cheap. Mediaedge:cia published its own research - Reaching the Ethnic Consumer: A Challenge for Marketers - earlier this year. The agency's head of research, David Fletcher, believes that it does cost more to reach an ethnic community, but that the competitive advantage can make sense of the extra expense. "You need to have an argument beyond the numbers," he says.
It's a job that needs to be done with great care. "The opportunity to get it wrong is fairly high," Fletcher says. "You've got to have specialist expertise."
There are potential pitfalls with issues such as religion and cultural differences, as well as the obvious language barriers. Enter the specialist agencies, such as Media Moguls or Media Reach. At Media Moguls, the managing director, Anjna Raheja, believes that clients and agencies are scared of attempting to get to ethnic people through their own media, even though they may be missing extra people in a context which is more likely to inspire loyalty than the mainstream channels. "It's easier for agencies to say 'I'll stick it in The Sun or on Channel 4'," she says.
Recent research by COI Communications, which has a legal obligation to reach minority audiences, indicated that many people of ethnic origin were consuming increasing levels of mainstream media, making them more important on the media schedule.
According to Fletcher, the use of mainstream media is a blunt instrument.
"The notion that British Asians and Afro-Caribbeans are not watching Coronation Street is wrong, but you can't reach them as effectively as you can with ethnic media. There's a coverage gap," he says.
Doug Bonn is the managing director of the ethnic media owner Me Media Group, the publisher of Paisa, a monthly magazine for small ethnic businesses, and the recruitment paper Works For Me, for the multi-ethnic community.
Bonn is convinced that media consumption across the ethnic spectrum is more focused on ethnic niches than mainstream media.
"The range of strong, vibrant and targeted media offerings available to the ethnic minority groups (and in some areas these are now majority groups) mean that mainstream media is always likely to be less attractive to the multi-ethnic community. And organisations are now discovering that they can no longer simply pay lip-service to diversity strategies. Ethnic media is an increasingly powerful and necessary voice for the diverse communities, and one that the target market listens to."
But braving ethnic media is just one part of the jigsaw. Most specialists use an array of different tactics to target a particular community, including localised events and exhibitions. And they have to tread carefully with any channels that they use, even if they profess to deliver the right audience.
Much ethnic media is of a decidedly dodgy quality and there are pitiful amounts of independent research available to back up media claims.
At Zee TV, the longest-surviving Asian station in the UK, the head of sales for Zee Network, Europe, Bala Iyer, echoes other media owners in his concern about the South Asian representation on independent research panels. Having trialled the channel on Barb, he decided that it made no sense. "It does not have enough people from the South Asian population in its sample," he says.
Like most other ethnic media, he relies on qualitative research. With no formal research, there's an even greater need for ethnic media to get its message across to potential advertisers. Kay McCarthy, the sales director at Sunrise Radio, which subscribes to Rajar and has an average weekly reach of more than 400,000 Asians, also knows she needs to enthuse advertisers about the possibilities. McCarthy's secret weapon? Bollywood.
It's a phenomenon which unites generations and isn't available to mainstream media. According to McCarthy, this helps Sunrise, like other ethnic media, to deliver audience loyalty in a manner no mainstream channel could start to do. "There's a potential that is grossly undertapped," she says.
News International's Star TV runs several UK channels that are tailored to fit the UK viewer. It carries ads for mainstream advertisers such as Kellogg and BT, but it is chasing a much larger advertiser base and knows that it needs to raise awareness and reassure clients that its channels are a quality act.
"Star is the number one network in Asia. Star News is very much like CNN or Sky News," Star's UK head of marketing Suruchi Sthalekar, says.
But it's the peculiarities of the ethnic audience which make Star sound like a gift to advertisers. "Asians watch more multichannel TV, are aspirational, status-driven and have a higher disposable income to play with," Sthalekar concludes.
TARGETING THE SOUTH ASIAN COMMUNITY
Client: Department of Health/ UK Transplant
Agency: Media Moguls
Campaign: South Asian Organ Donation
Media Moguls has worked on a long-term campaign to raise awareness of organ donation in the South Asian community. With an annual budget of £250,000 the agency created a multimedia campaign, backed by celebrity endorsement from the likes of Art Malik (right). Above-the-line ads in TV, radio and press were supported by PR. The agency has also designed direct marketing campaigns to GPs, places of worship, community centres and then initiated discussions within community groups. To reach a younger audience it used viral, text messaging and university Freshers' fairs.
REACHING UK BANGLADESHIS
Agency: Media Reach
Campaign: Sonar Bangla rice
Tilda targeted UK Bangladeshis with its Sonar Bangla rice and worked with the specialist agency Media Reach from 2000 to 2002. As well as using traditional media - press, radio and point of sale - Tilda used lamppost sites in Tower Hamlets. It also sponsored a Bangladeshi agony aunt page and a Bengalis football league. Following the initial campaign, the target of 60 retail outlets was exceeded by over 50 per cent and 95 per cent of those re-ordered.