'Total Market' Doesn't Mean You Should Give Up On Cultural Insights

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Recently, I presented a session on the influence of the Latino market in the U.S. at the Wave Festival in Rio de Janeiro (not a bad place to do it, by the way). The title of my palestra (or conference, in Portuguese) was "Cultural Affinity Is the New Language." And preparing it brought into sharp focus the drastic changes in our growing market.

And you don't have to be an eternal optimist like me to realize how far we've come.

The new mainstream: Sofia Vergara is one of the highest paid actors in broadcast TV.
The new mainstream: Sofia Vergara is one of the highest paid actors in broadcast TV.

There was a time when "What's Hispanic about it?" was the reigning attitude. Our marketing had to be obviously Hispanic, whether it be due to the presence of Spanish, mustachioed men or big families ruled by a grandmother.

We've evolved from that to "leading with ethnic insights," marketing that includes cues to specifically based in a culture but that have enough creativity to speak beyond it. This is how sophisticated advertisers have always viewed what others are now calling "total market."

For good or bad, "total market" has become the buzzword du jour. It's also become one of the most misunderstood in our industry lexicon. Advocates position it as a natural evolution of the demographic changes in America, where brands should no longer focus on Hispanics -- or any specific culture -- as a "unique target" but rather integrate everything into one single platform.

Some pitfalls need to be considered.

It borders on fallacy to say that one insight can be strong enough to apply to all ethnic segments. In fact, the broader the insight, the more generic. And the more generic it is, the more forgettable and less effective it is.

After all, market segmentation was created to achieve higher effectiveness, by addressing different audiences, knowing and respecting their own sets of expectations, idiosyncrasies, wants and values.

One of the reasons Hispanic advertising tends to resonate more with its intended target goes beyond insights and has to do with creative expression. According to several studies, while usage of Spanish is important, nuances like context, style and humor are crucial to be able to resonate with Hispanics. In other words, even a strong, insights-based creative idea can flop if the execution doesn't provide the cultural cues that increase empathy and affinity.

It's also a risky proposition to look at "total market" as an excuse to cut budgets on behalf of short-term potential efficiencies. What advertisers can save by reducing Hispanic fees and production budgets is marginal compared to what can be gained by crafting a truly relevant strategy. The real question they should ask themselves is how much money are they leaving on the table.

When the next census is conducted in 2020, minorities are expected to account for 40% of the population, and Hispanics will be close to 20%. So it just makes sense to tap into specialists with a multicultural perspective (not unlike how you'd want a specialist when dealing with a health issue).

And there's something else. The truth is that most culturally specialized agencies are probably better prepared to address whatever notion of total market is being embraced. For us, "mainstream" is "upstream." We've lived inside the mainstream culture even as it's been changing all these years.

We've seen the growing Latino influence on many aspects of the American lifestyle. You can witness it music and entertainment with pop stars like Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez, and with Sofia Vergara, now one of the highest paid actors on general-market TV. You can taste it in the different food trends that are spicier and bolder. In a wide range of sports, including the all-American baseball, many megastars are Latino. Great film directors like Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñarritu have shattered some of the old Hollywood clichés. In politics, we feel the influence of Marco Rubio, Julián Castro and Sonia Sotomayor. And, of course, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party know very well that the Latino vote was crucial for re-election.

To achieve marketing effectiveness, broad and multilayered cultural influence truly demands wide and deep cultural knowledge. Look at it as "cultural curators" working as a strong, well-seasoned multidisciplinary team, not Hispanic transplants trying to modify a "general market" mind-set. Latinos are setting trends and helping create a new and more diverse mainstream culture. In the process, we bring a unique joy for life, a rhythm, a sense of humor, and above all a relentless sense of optimism to the U.S.

And culturally specialized shops know something about optimism and effectiveness as well. After all, we've always been able to offset limitations, budget constraints and even adversity through ingenuity, resourcefulness and a can-do attitude.

I'm telling you, optimism works wonders!

Luis Miguel Messianu is president and chief creative officer of Miami-based Alma.

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