Asian American growth in the South – A reflection on the election of Hongbin Guo as Chapel Hill city council member

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News coverage of this November elections has focused on how Democrats fared in the first tests of Trump’s impact. Something else close to home also caught my attention. Hongbin Gu, a UNC associate professor and immigrant from China, was elected as a Chapel Hill town council member with the highest number of votes among the candidates (6116 votes). In fact, more than 50% of those who voted casted a vote for her (voter turnout was 10193, as reported in http://www.orangecountync.gov/departments/board_of_elections/voter_turnout_statistics.php). Her election was a surprise to me, to her, and all her supporters as well. Although Chapel Hill is a college town, it is after all part of the South which is more socially conservative than the rest of the country. Chinese residents account for a mere 2.8% of the Orange County population (3905 out of 138644). Estimate of eligible voters of Chinese origin are 1103 (3905 * 0.73 [% of Orange County population who are adults] *0.79 [% of adult Asians who are foreign born] * 0.49 [% of Asian residents who are naturalized] = 1103). So Hongbin Gu couldn’t have been elected with Chinese voters’ support alone. When I saw her signs while driving, I wondered how voters would embrace a candidate with a foreign sounding name. My concern was apparently not necessary. And Orange County voters proved that they are more open-minded than I thought.

 

For me, Hongbin Gu’s election exemplifies two things: One, the awakening of Asian Americans and their increasing participation in public affairs and advocacy; and secondly, the growing numbers and influence of Asian Americans in the south.

 

For Hongbin Gu’s campaign, the entire Chinese community in Chapel Hill was mobilized to raise funds, distribute flyers door to door, and staff event booths and ballot stops on election day. A WeChat group was created for the campaign to coordinate volunteers. Based on my casual observation, Hongbin Gu’s campaign was more organized and better staffed than other candidates. In addition to her own leadership and capability, I think another very important reason for her win is that Asian Americans increasingly realized the importance of civic participation and having a voice in public affairs, and they threw all their support behind someone who can represent them. Nationwide, AAPI Data counted over 30 AAPI candidates that were newly elected or re-elected to office in this election.

 

Regarding population trends, North Carolina is one of the states with the fastest growth of Asian Americans. Asian population in the state grew 85% from 2000 to 2010. Hmart opened its first NC store in Cary at the end of 2016. In the beginning of 2017, the First Chapel Hill LIGHTUP Lantern Festival drew close to 10,000 in attendance at University Place, a mall at the heart of Chapel Hill. Due to the overwhelming reception of the event, the event is moving to a larger venue, Friday Center, for 2018. Raleigh also saw its first Korean festival at the beginning of 2017.

 

Implications

Here are a few thoughts for marketers interested in the Asian American market:

 

Asian American marketing should go beyond traditional markets such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. While these markets still have the highest concentration of Asian Americans, they only account for part of the Asian American market.

 

Digital media can be leveraged to geo-target Asian Americans wherever they are. Mainstream platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and more niche platforms such as WeChat (particularly popular among Chinese) and Whatsapp (particularly popular among Indians) offer great opportunities for display ads and content marketing to increase awareness and build relationships. While digital media are powerful platforms, great care needs to be taken in ad placement. I have seen Spanish ads placed in the middle of Chinese language drama on YouTube, which is clearly a waste of money.

 

Lastly, traditional media still important. According to Reaching the Fastest Growing Consumer in a Digital World by the Asian American Advertising Federation (3AF), 80% of Asian Americans watch TV and 52% listen to radio on a daily basis. Newspaper is an importance source for local news. Asian Americans often pick up free in-language newspapers at Asian supermarkets and read in-language news on mobile apps or the Internet.

 

Hongbin Gu announcing her campaign