MarketingThe Great Wall of Latin America

The Great Wall of Latin America

How do you market in a "low-trust" culture? Online, offline, and altogether.

Early last week – on my way back home from a trip to Puerto Rico – I dropped in briefly at the Portada Latam Summit in Miami to speak on one of my favorite topics: marketing in “low-trust” cultures. While the talk – a panel discussion – was focused specifically on the challenges that market researchers face in sizing up the pay TV market in Latin America, we quickly swung to the more general challenges that marketers face in this increasingly complex world.

El Morro, Puerto Rico. Source: Wikipedia

For me, a “neo-Rican” business consultant who has only recently discovered the Latin American market, it was an opportunity to share what I’ve been able to observe as a relative outsider over the last few years. Latin America, as I have often been told, does appear to be a low-trust culture – we tend to be wary of one another, do not easily commit, and are cautious to share what we know. Latin America, as I have also been told, tends to be more status-conscious; we cling to titles and positions more jealously, and are often not open to mixing with people lower down in the hierarchy. Latin Americans – as I was reminded by my friends in Puerto Rico – are also more insular; for us, it’s easier to look inside than outside to the world that surrounds us. And if you’re from an island like Puerto Rico – actually an archipelago, though we tend to forget – the insularity is reinforced by geography.

Of course, these are gross generalizations. For every encounter I’ve had with “low-trust Latinos,” I have been welcomed into the homes of trusting families. Low-trust is a tendency, not a permanent condition, in any culture with a history of colonialism and oppression. Dozens of dissertations have been written on this topic, and I cannot pretend to go deeper. But what I can say is that the tendency has been a huge market inhibitor in Latin America, and that the conversation at Portada illuminated a few paths businesses, government entities, and NGOs might take.


As I noted on the panel, low trust makes it difficult for marketers to get real numbers in any market. Status makes it difficult for bosses to empower their employees, a path to growth, and innovation in surrounding markets. And insularity impairs our ability to see beyond ourselves, and to learn from others in those surrounding markets. For the Portada panel, these social deficits were translated into objective marketing challenges: the tendency for operators to underreport subscribers; the rampant piracy and theft in the region; and the lack of good primary and secondary research, because people in business do not trust speaking with others. (For a thorough analysis of the challenges in Latam research, check out this excellent post by Thomas Redig).

But as anyone who has studied the Latino digital market knows, the swift adoption of social media among Latinos is helping to knock down barriers in a number of areas. Marketers who are struggling to get better numbers can avail themselves to real-time stats on consumer sentiment via the large social networks. Businesses everywhere, including those in Latin America, are being forced to listen to their employees because of bottoms-up collaboration platforms like Yammer and Chatter, and technology that people bring to the workplace. As for insularity, the twin forces of globalization and social networking are dragging Latin America – whether it likes it or not – into the bigger marketplace. Of course, it’s not like every Latin American business has been unwilling. But the forces at work on the global stage will make unwilling companies the exception to the rule someday.


Still, as one of the other Portada panelists noted, when it comes to social technology, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves. The digital transformation of Latin-American business won’t happen overnight, and in the meantime there’s some important groundwork to be done. I mean that literally. Business Bureau – represented on the Portada panel by Tomas Gennari – has been “crawling” Latin America, country by country, town by town, getting real data on the market by going directly to the people. It’s an impressive effort, in several ways. First, it’s consistent with a new approach to marketing that eschews the research-by-phone framework and instead favors the way community activists work. Second, it recognizes that Latin America is not a monolithic market, but rather a multiplicity of markets, and details matter. I’m not sure there’s anything like what Business Bureau is doing, and I am betting that marketers begin to watch this project closely (I know I will be).

All Together Now

In the end, a more visible, actionable Latin-American market is likely to emerge from both the online transformation we are seeing in the social-tech world and the offline grassroots efforts of Business Bureau. As I’ve written in prior columns, the merger of online and offline is slowly but surely becoming the new framework for marketing and engagement. A sharp illustration of this is the work of Jose Rico and The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (disclaimer: I am an advisor to the Initiative), which has toured the U.S. with a number of federal officials to crowdsource the work of government with thousands of local civilian leaders. The Initiative uses both online and offline tools for engagement, and it’s the combination of the two that has made a sustainable impact. But it’s a merger of another variety – the combination of public and private resources – that merits the immediate attention of marketers to Latinos. The White House Initiative was designed to address a big social challenge – the coordination of government and Hispanic leaders to fix problems together – and to do that required a rather big intervention. Thus far, it looks like the intervention is working, and I believe that other leaders will draw inspiration from it – as well as the Business Bureau project – and tear down the Great Wall of Latin America.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this. Unlike the other Great Wall, the Great Wall of Latin America isn’t physical; it’s psychological. And unlike the other wall, this one doesn’t mark the perimeter of a territory, but instead stands between its people, its nations, between all of Latin America and the rest of the world. But just like the other wall, this one is real, and one that cannot easily be cleared without the creativity and collaboration – inside and outside, top and bottom, public and private – of many players. And the most important players (we learned this during the White House project) will be those who have the most at stake: the people who live in the communities we’re “targeting.” For if there’s anything we’ve learned about cultural change it’s that it doesn’t come from without (like colonization) but rather from within (like liberation).

When that happens, I’ll be there, ready to lend a brotherly hand; that’s what neo-Latinos are for. But until then, I’ll keep sharing what we know about social engagement, social interventions, and social transformation. That’s what neo-Latino social technology professionals are for.

It’ll take more than a pueblo to knock this wall down, and we will each need to play our part. Get ready.

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