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Beyond Cinco de Mayo

  |  June 14, 2005   |  Comments

It's time to get serious about marketing to Hispanics online.

With the recent election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles, a historic event Newsweek rewarded with a "Latin Power" cover story, it's fitting to ask an obvious and overdue question:

Are marketers prepared and ready to market to the nation's burgeoning Hispanic population? Do we even have a clue? Will we?

Census Bureau data released last week reveal the Hispanic population is growing faster today than in the past decade. Nearly one in seven people in the U.S. identify themselves as Hispanic, and this group alone accounted for half of U.S. population growth since 2000. Remarkably, a third of this population is under 18, suggesting Hispanics are not only a promising demographic for marketers but also a powerful, nascent political force.

Most of us remain vastly out of touch with this fast-growing segment of the population. You needn't look further than brand Web sites and online strategies to reach this easy conclusion.

From Packaging Latino Politicians to Hispanic CPG-Product Packaging

I'd be the first to raise my hand on the ignorance front, but I can probably get away with a little bluffing on the subject. My first real job after college was serving as press secretary and legislative consultant to Art Torres, a dynamic state senator representing the San Gabriel Valley and Latino-dominant East L.A. At the time (1989), Torres was seriously considering running for mayor of Los Angeles, an office no Latino had occupied since 1872.

Torres ultimately pursued other ambitions, but over the next few years we pursued an aggressive agenda of issues pertaining to California's exploding Latino population, from immigrant education and school dropout prevention to economic development and environmental protection in minority-dominant communities. In the process of giving voice to underserved communities, Torres turned out to be a relentless innovator. Indeed, my own fate in online marketing was signed, sealed, and delivered when Torres hosted the nation's first ever "interactive" legislative hearing in 1993, allowing average citizens to call a toll-free number to provide "live" feedback while watching a televised legislative hearing.

From a marketing perspective, keeping Torres competitive required equal diligence to the front page of La Opinión, the nation's largest Spanish-language daily, and to the front page of the Los Angeles Times. It also required sensitivity to subtle yet important ethnic identity nuances within the government-created term "Hispanic." So polarizing was the term, the Los Angeles Times' editorial style guide allowed only "Latino."

Business school later facilitated an almost-surreal shift from California ethnic politics to managing Hispanic marketing for Procter & Gamble's billion-dollar Bounty brand, but many challenges remained the same. My first P&G assignment involved back-to-back focus groups in Miami and Los Angeles, which uncovered remarkably distinctive differences in awareness, trial, and consumption around consumer products.

Newer immigrants, for example, relied more on word of mouth from relatives and other "familiars" when trying new products. And let's not confuse Cuban Americans with Mexican Americans. Bounty didn't have the resources to tailor messaging to all Hispanic subgroups, yet understanding the core difference was critical to prevent stupid or embarrassing generalizations.

The Road Ahead, Including Online

Are marketers prepared for this exciting new target audience? The good news is marketing dollars are up, many Hispanic/Latino agencies are finally getting the respect they deserve, and portals such as AOL and Yahoo are laying impressive foundations to serve advertiser needs in this segment. Univision's recent squeeze on English-language networks is serving as a refreshing wakeup call regarding the growth and importance of this market.

The bad news is most brands still struggle with how to organize for success in "ethnic marketing." P&G often ebbed and flowed on whether so-called ethic marketing should be centralized at the corporate level or left within the scope of individual brands. It's a Catch-22. Brands theoretically do what's best for business and exploit all growth opportunities. Yet, corporate programs must look well beyond short-term brand volume needs to more holistic, long-term strategic considerations.

Either way, now's the time for CMOs to step up to the plate and take Hispanic marketing well beyond Cinco de Mayo promotions.

Online should play a critical role in this ramp-up. There's enough data on the table from Pew Hispanic Center and sufficiently abundant activity in the blogosphere and consumer-generated media to suggest Hispanics are online at dramatically higher levels than digital divide theory suggests.

A great starting point is to take a hard, critical look at multicultural or bilingual content on Fortune 1000 Web sites. ATM machines and product packaging seemingly bend over backwards to provide bilingual messaging, yet sites act as though folks speak (or prefer) only English. If interactive marketing's promise is all about targeting and relevancy, why are Web sites so out of touch? Consider:

  • The conspicuous global site paradox. Most major brands lead you to Spanish-language Web content through non-U.S.-based sites only, such as Mexico- or Latin America-based sites. This is a big miss, because there are more Spanish-language speakers in the U.S. than there are in most Spanish-language countries. The one category proving to be the exception is baby care, where U.S.-based sites are commendably duplicated in Spanish. Pampers and Huggies are good examples.

  • Insensitive, unresponsive brand search. It gets even weirder when you try to search brand Web sites by ethnic or Spanish-language issues or themes. Pepsi is one of the biggest spenders in offline Hispanic media, but if you type the word "Spanish" into its brand search engines, it fires back blanks. Nor can you easily retrieve (nor share with others) its Spanish-language TV copy (which I find far more upbeat and exciting). Coke isn't much better. If you go to the main Kraft Foods Web site and type in "cheese," the results return 2,619 recipes. Type in "queso" (Spanish for cheese), and you get only two results.

  • One-size-fits-all listening. Few brand site feedback forms cater to Spanish speakers, which is ironic because these are the little-understood segments brands must really listen to! Even my beloved Bounty fell short on this front. Most brand FAQs and search engines disproportionately weigh "popular" themes, which often marginalize highly relevant content for key ethnic groups.

Interactive is only a small part of the broader Hispanic marketing mix, but it may just be the fastest path to learning and wisdom. If we're to stay competitive with the rapid changes in today's marketplace, we must listen, learn, then listen again.

Los Angeles' election of a Latino mayor should serve as a long-overdue catalyst.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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