Marketers Need to Redraw Their Puerto Rican Map

As the GOP continues to debate its missteps with the Latino vote (nearly three in four voted for President Obama, and the overall turnout comprised close to 10 percent of the overall vote), a smaller story has begun to emerge about one of the U.S.’ most important groups in the grand Latino metatribe: Puerto Ricans. If you’re a marketer, you may not know that there are now 847,550 Puerto Ricans in Florida, almost twice as many as there were in 2000. And if you’re wondering about their collective power, they may have in fact delivered Obama the vote in Florida. For while a small plurality of Cuban Americans in fact did vote for Obama (a surprise for many people), an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida voted for the President. If Florida, not Ohio, were the state that put the President over the top, the Florida Puerto Rican surprise could have been the story in this year’s election.

But there’s a bigger picture worth looking at, and marketers need to take heed: the Puerto Rican market in the U.S. may not be what they think, in several fundamental ways.

We May Not Be Where You Think

Let’s start with the most obvious: the geographic shift. There was a time when marketers saw the U.S. Puerto Rican market as mostly a New York City metro area and Chicago phenomenon. I grew up in the Bronx in the ’60s and ’70s, and I felt the effect of this early take on the market. But if you were to redraw the virtual map of the U.S. Puerto Rican diaspora, you might be surprised to learn where we live today. My family, which in many ways has followed the typical path of island-to-mainland migration, tells the story – we began in New York City, moved Eastward to Long Island, then over the next few decades went West and South to emerging Latino strongholds in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, California, and yes, even Ohio. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. – almost a million more than the population on the Puerto Rican archipelago. And while New York and Florida get the lion’s share, the numbers are trending up almost everywhere, and the Northeast may someday cede its status as the center of gravity.

We May Not Be Who You Think

Another big surprise for marketers is the demographic shift. I wrote about this after visiting San Juan last winter. Puerto Rico today is suffering from a huge flight of immigration, and it’s different from the one that brought my family to New York in the 1940’s and ’50s. Today, most of the immigration to the U.S. is coming from the Puerto Rican middle class as they continue to struggle to find work on the archipelago. What does this mean for marketers? Well, for one thing, they may need to understand the needs, preferences, and biases of the Puerto Rican “exiles.” But it may also be an opportunity to think what it means to engage someone who has ties to both her homeland and new home. As I have noted several times over the past year, there may be a new approach to marketing that deliberately designs for the reality that so many U.S. citizens are part of a global diaspora.

Beware the Complexity

And, at the same time, we need to be aware that not all members of any ethnic group are the same. Yes, most Puerto Ricans in the aggregate vote Democrat. But as with most other Hispanic groups, the numbers begin to change as people climb up the economic ladder. And the stratification of class and culture that historically has held back the island persists today in the U.S. Generally, I am hopeful for change. In fact, I see the potential for the digital world to accelerate communication, collaboration, and consensus-building among all Puerto Ricans, wherever they happen to live. But until then, the differences among us should matter to all marketers. We may sometimes think alike and make our collective strength felt, just as we did in the last election. But the differences among us are just as important. The little things matter, too.

Puerto Rico Map image on home page via Shutterstock.

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