Showdown in Florida: Who Owns the Latino Narrative?

Source: Wikipedia

On Saturday evening, as I was checking in to hear what the cable pundits had to say about Newt Gingrich’s surprising win in South Carolina, it dawned on me that we were about to hear from another class of influencer: the Latinos who both commercial marketers and politicians have been trying to warm up to over the past few years.

Why now? Well, after the opening contests in three key states, the race is now moving to a state where Latinos can actually help determine the outcome. With its large Latino population, and Republican politicians who have learned how to court them, Florida will provide election watchers with something they haven’t yet seen in 2012.

From where I sit, I can bet that they will see several things. First, they will see the sheer size of the Latino vote, something that surprises the media every four years. Second, they will see various strategies to leverage that vote; given what a couple of candidates in the current field have said publicly on issues that matter to Latinos, this should be interesting to watch. Third, and perhaps most interesting, will be the ability of Latinos to maintain their own agenda and vote according to how well candidates respond. Florida will be the first chapter of one of the most interesting stories in marketing in 2012.

The Metatribe

There are a great number of reasons for this, but I will outline just three of them here. First, there’s the phenomenon that I have often written about in this column – while the word “Latino” is somewhat of a demographic fiction (representing a great number of different groups and different interests), Latinos do at times come together when they are approached the right way, or when they are approached the wrong way. In fact, the first time I wrote about this ephemeron – in my inaugural post for ClickZ – I observed how a number of GOP candidates approached Latinos the wrong way in the 2010 election and watched conservative Latino voters go against them. Conversely, there have been a number of large commercial brands that have done well with Latinos by appealing to pan-ethnic identity (illustrated in many of the case studies featured in this column). True, Latinos are not a single tribe, easily understood and engaged with a simple narrative. But we are in fact a powerful metatribe, and there are a number of ideas and issues that bind us – economic empowerment, educational opportunities, and, of course, immigration reform, the issue that illuminated the power of the Latino metatribe in the 2010 election. I expect that Republicans and Democrats will learn from what happened then and approach the metatribe more thoughtfully this year.

The Scope

Second, there’s the sheer size of the Latino electorate. Though historically it has sometimes been difficult to get out the Latino vote, the fact that today one out of six Americans is of Latino descent is enough to get any politicians to develop a good Latino strategy. And the market is getting bigger. By the middle of the century, according to the latest census, one out of three Americans will be Latino. This has had the effect of getting politicians who design for the long-term (for example, operatives for the two major parties) to invest in programs targeting Latino youth. But in the meantime, look for smart and targeted campaigns in the swing states where Latinos already make up a sizeable part of the population – Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and, yes, Florida. The Latino vote is too big to lose. But like all marketing campaigns, the effort to get it will be focused and local.

The Latinosphere

But the most interesting thing we will see this year in Latino marketing has little to do with the work of marketers. And that’s because the protagonist of this story is the Latino. As I have observed in this column over the past 14 months – beginning at the end of the 2010 election, and now at the true beginning of the 2012 election – Latinos have emerged as perhaps the most engaged, savvy, and connected of all ethnic groups on the social web, and their comfort in this world is enabling them to come together faster than ever. The Latino metatribe is now visible in the Latinosphere, and that visibility is certain to have its greatest impact on Latinos themselves. Yes, it’s been tough for the metatribe to come together, and politicians have fought hard to exploit those segments. And yes, there are other challenges for anyone seeking common ground: failures in the past, false hopes, and the most difficult challenge of all, the low trust that many sociologists have said is typical of Latino cultures. But if 2010 is any indication of how Latinos have been able to rally for their own causes, the 2012 election will be a show really worth watching.

Who owns the Latino narrative? Increasingly, Latinos do; and of course, for Latinos, that’s a good thing. If you’re a commercial marketer or politician, that might be a bit of a challenge; it’s hard to give up the role of protagonist and take a supporting part. But the longer you wait, the tougher it will be. Your competitor could get the new part and enter the scene – stage left or stage right – before you even have a chance to learn your lines.

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