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Tuesday April 16, 2002

Creative Marketing Tactics Help Fuel Western Union Profits

Sandra Lee

Having increased profits by more than a third in the first quarter, with a 15 percent growth in revenues, the financial performance of Western Union continues to be a beacon in the currently dismal economy.

A major engine for its success in recent years has been the company's strategic outreach to the Asian immigrant population in the United States, a group that is noted for sending money to loved ones in their native countries.

To help tap this market, Western Union began a relationship three years ago with interTrend, a Torrance, Calif.-based ad agency that specializes in targeting Asian markets. According to interTrend, reaching this immigrant population required an integrated and resourceful approach that relied heavily on grass root methods.

The campaign has largely been about raising awareness and establishing a level of trust, particularly since the company is a fairly new player in the market.

Until recently, the dominant means of overseas money transfers has been banks. But moving funds this way could take anywhere from 3 days to a week, and the receiver often has to pay a fee.

In contrast, Western Union transfers are cash-based and customers do not need an account to make a transfer - a factor that many recent immigrants find appealing. On top of that, the transaction can be received in matter of minutes, and there is no fee for the receiver.

"People always sound so surprised when we tell them how it works," said Wade Guang, management supervisor for interTrend. "It's a real eye opener for them to learn the money can be received so quickly."

Because of their propensity to send money back home, the relationship between this vast immigrant population and Western Union seems like a no-brainer. But Ming Ren Shiu, marketing manager for Western Union, based in Montvale, NJ., points out that marketing is never so easy.

"Western Union is taking an active role in driving growth," he said. "We've made a commitment to branding in these markets."

For example, New York City has a high concentration of Chinese immigrants from the Fuzhou province. The number of media outlets broadcasting in the Fuzhou dialect is scant to nonexistent, however.

"It's really a niche market," Guang said.

To better communicate with this group, Western Union helped get radio programming on the air that was tailored in the Fuzhou dialect.

The company is also active in a variety of grassroots programs, including sponsorship of cultural events. The Independence Celebration in San Francisco is an example of how the ad agency spreads Western Union's gospel "That's where we can explain what Western Union is all about one-on-one," Guang said.

Grass roots events like these are particularly important for the Filipino demographic, which does not have the same media maturity as the Korean, Japanese and Chinese markets.

"The level of consumer awareness is different for each group," Shiu said. "We work with interTrend to tailor different creative ads to different groups. Chinese consumers use banks, so our goal there is to differentiate ourselves from banks. But when it comes to the Vietnamese, we need to educate about how reliable and secure our infrastructure is."

Looking Beyond the Numbers

So what's the key to interTrend's campaign for Western Union? Branding.

According to Julia Huang, president and founder of interTrend, most advertisers approach campaigns from a tactical standpoint of immediate return. "How many deposits were made? How much money was transferred?"

But interTrend took a broader approach, putting education and brand awareness at the forefront.

"It's not just a matter of advertising, but how a corporation approaches market in an integrated way - figuring out how they're perceived in community," Huang said. "Advertising is really one component of truly tapping market potential."

That means making sure the company makes a connection with clients on the front lines. To ensure this, Shiu said the Western Union workforce is as culturally diverse as its customers.

"When a customer sends a Western Union money transfer transaction, he or she most likely is doing so through a local retailer that they know and trust," Shiu said. "Western Union agents are the owners of local food stores, pharmacies, travel agents, currency exchange offices, and news stands, which are part of the fabric of their everyday lives."

The company also has toll-free in-language customer service numbers that are staffed by people that speak the native languages of Filipinos, Chinese, Thais, Koreans and Vietnamese.

A Viable Market

According the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for households with an Asian-born resident was $42,900, the highest of any foreign-born group and higher than the income of native born groups ($36,100). In addition, close to half of the nation's Asian-born population lives in one of three metropolitan areas; New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Nevertheless, Huang says many corporations still have "a mindset obstacle" when it comes to the Asian market - it's still an unknown area for many companies. On top of that, the umbrella term "Asian" consists of so many different cultures and languages that it can be daunting at first glance. Many corporations use this very complexity as an excuse not to dedicate resources to this market, Huang said.

Notably, however, 70 percent of interTrend's new business comes from exiting clients, and the company is entering its fourth year of partnership with Western Union. This in itself is a testament to the power of culturally savvy advertising.

These days, Huang says companies are becoming more sophisticated, and rarely opt to blanket all ethnic groups with a single "Asian" campaign.

In particular, Huang said the success of the Western Union campaign has been the client's willingness to allow the ad agency to take an integrated approach to this unique market.

So what's next for Western Union?

"We are in the process of preparing forms that will overcome language barriers and make using Western Union easier for our customers," Shiu said. "We are researching the feasibility of using in-language money transfer software."

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