Jay Sean is an hour late, but the crowd gathered in the makeshift studio at MTV's Times Square headquarters doesn't seem to mind. Twenty-some twenty-somethings are sitting around the edges of the room when the spiky-haired British R&B star finally enters, causing more than one girl to lean forward. Sean is miked and seated in front of an MTV logo reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. The camera rolls, and the interview begins. Sean talks about being a kid and starting a band in England with his cousin, recording their first demo tape in his bedroom and being swooned over. He also talks about listening to bhangra music, choosing singing over medicine as a career and picking a Bollywood actress to star in his latest music video. The interview wraps, but the star, who was raised in Britain by India-born parents, stays seated to shoot a few promotional clips. "This is your boy Jay Sean," he says, "and you're watching MTV Desi."
Welcome to the next marketing frontier. For years, Western companies have understood the potential of 1 billion consumers in India, but now they are slowly starting to realize the purchasing power of people in the U.S. who trace their roots to the subcontinent--a group known as desis. MTV India has aired overseas since 1996, but MTV Desi--a channel for Americans of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Bhutanese and Nepalese descent--is brand new, launching this summer. And MTV isn't alone as it chases desi dollars. South Asian marketing is still in its infancy, but early adopters like General Motors, Citibank and GlaxoSmithKline are advertising in ethnic newspapers, buying airtime on satellite channels, sponsoring cultural festivals, underwriting minority scholarships and even creating new products, like MTV Desi.
Why the interest? It's not just America's growing appetite for South Asian culture--movies like Bend It Like Beckham and stars like Bollywood actress and model Aishwarya Rai. The marketing thrust started with the 2000 Census, which revealed that during the 1990s the number of Indians in the U.S. more than doubled--making them the fastest-growing Asian minority. There are some 2.5 million desis in the U.S., and the vast majority are Indian. That may not seem terribly significant compared with, say, 40 million Hispanics, but consider how premium a customer a South Asian is: Indians alone commanded $76 billion worth of disposable personal income last year, according to market-research firm Cultural Access Group, using figures from the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth; median household income is nearly $64,000--50% higher than the national average. The U.S. has always welcomed the world's poor and working classes. India has sent its professionals.
And they're not afraid to spend. Lakshmi Subrahmanian, 48, sums up the shopping habits of her four-person, five-computer, six-figure-income family this way: "We like to buy the best." The mental-health counselor and her electrical-engineer husband Jayram, 53, who own a five-bedroom house in Coral Springs, Fla., are about to trade in their 2002 Mercedes--it's time for something newer. That spells opportunity for General Motors, which has begun pushing Cadillacs in desi circles. "This is a great market," says Jean Liu-Barnocki, GM's manager for Asian-American marketing, "and we're putting some very targeted resources behind reaching it."