Here's how to harness the Hispanic market

Marketers who look long-term and avoid assumptions can come closer to capturing that elusive Latino demographic

By Published on .

As tv and cable networks unveil their programming plans for next year, there is huge buzz around the fact that some-in an effort to stop the corrosion of their audiences-are borrowing a page from their Spanish-language counterparts and warming up to the idea of the telenovela, a type of Spanish-language soap that drives millions of viewers every day in the United States and around the world.

The interest, no doubt, comes as a result of the success of "Desperate Housewives," which is nothing more than a telenovela in the true sense of the genre. ABC recently announced plans to roll out "Betty the Ugly," based on a popular Colombian telenovela that reigned supreme on Telemundo a few years ago, and NBC is leveraging its knowledge of the Hispanic market by developing an English-language telenovela called "Body of Desire." But many people in the TV industry still ask themselves: "Will this new format work in the general market and, more important, will English-dominant Hispanics watch?"

This quandary is the same for all marketers looking to tap into the growing Hispanic market no matter what products they are trying to sell. The reality is that most marketers are as "Lost" as the characters in the ABC hit drama when it comes to the Latino market. The problem is exacerbated even more by the level of ignorance that "general-market" executives exhibit toward this market. After 20 years of advising executives in corporate America about how to enter the relatively uncharted waters of the Hispanic market, I have to come realize that, invariably, they all make the same mistakes. Here, then, are a few to avoid:

1. Don't make assumptions about the Hispanic market.

I'm always shocked by the number of companies that go to market with Hispanic efforts without ever doing any research. The first thing you need to do before you can successfully sell your products to Latinos is understand who your target market really is and what they know (or don't know) about your product or brand.

Hispanics are different. Unlike most other immigrant groups in the United States, Latinos have been able to hold on to their language and culture, thanks to the geographic proximity of Latin America and the ease with which one can travel and communicate with friends and family back home; the constant flow (both legal and illegal) of Hispanic immigrants, which refreshes the number of predominantly Spanish-speakers; and the growth of Spanish-language media in the United States. These three factors have slowed the natural process of assimilation. Don't get me wrong: Assimilation is taking place, but at a much slower pace than most people ever imagined.

Another factor slowing the process of assimilation is the fact that now everything Latino is cool. Whereas before, children of Hispanic immigrants may have wanted to hide their roots, now they proudly display them by speaking Spanish not only with their families but also with friends at school.

2. Don't assume all Latinos speak only Spanish.

While the usage of the Spanish language is not going away and will continue to be a critical factor in this market for years to come, the reality is that Latinos are becoming more bicultural and bilingual. You often will see data claiming that 75% of all Latinos speak some Spanish, while other data claim the complete opposite-that 75% speak some English.

Guess what? Both statistics are true, because roughly half of all Hispanics are bilingual and the rest are more or less evenly split between Spanish-dominants and English-dominants. The main point here is that a growing number of Latinos are actually bilingual and bicultural, especially the younger generations that either were born in the United States or immigrated at a very young age. This group of bilingual Latinos is often referred to as "acculturated."

Acculturated Latinos live in two worlds: the English world of work or school and the Spanish world of family and friends. They are unique in that they choose which language to use depending on the situation and their needs at the moment. The fact is that "language switching" is a reality in the Hispanic market. Why should this matter? Because contrary to the popular notion that you are reaching the Hispanic market through a Spanish-language media buy, the reality is that you are only reaching part of it. Smart marketers are starting to realize that they must advertise in both languages.

3. Don't enter the Hispanic market without making a commitment.

There are more Hispanics in the United States than there are Canadians in Canada. However, when companies are considering the Hispanic market, they think in terms of "test." Because of that short-term mentality, their Hispanic efforts usually are underfunded and not really well-thought-out. The result, more often than not, is a complete disaster, and then everyone throws his hands up in the air and says: "Oh well, we tried, but it didn't work." Do you really want to enter this market with a mediocre effort that could taint your brand for years to come with this increasingly important demographic? If you are looking for growth for your business in the future, start by making a commitment to the Hispanic market and putting your best people to work on a long-term plan.

4. Don't be fooled by a Hispanic surname.

I'm always amazed at how stupid some very smart executives can be regarding the Hispanic market. Once they have decided to do a Hispanic project, their knee-jerk reaction is to assign someone with a Hispanic surname to lead the project. Truth be told, it was not that long ago that just about any Tom, Dick or Harry-or should I say Jose, Rafael or Maria-would get the job without having the first clue about what to do. There is a big difference between a "professional Latino" and a "Latino professional."

5. Don't think that this market is monolithic.

This is a fast-growing market in an incredibly dynamic marketplace. As a result, what we know about the Hispanic market today will change in a year or two. But perhaps the most important thing to note is that the Hispanic market has been slowly shifting from one that was predominantly foreign-born, 20 years ago, to one that is predominantly U.S.-born. Studies show that foreign-born Latinos are very different than U.S.-born Latinos. They tend to be older and more conservative in their views on family, religion and politics. They also tend to be less educated and have lower household incomes. It's this younger, more educated Latino with a higher household income that everyone wants to capture. I guess we will soon find out if they tune in to "Betty the Ugly" or not.
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