Banks tailor efforts to homesick Hispanics

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Despite low wages, Hispanic immigrants send about $20 billion a year home to Latin America-half of it to Mexico.

Eyeing those billions and more, financial-services groups such as Citibank and Bank of America are aggressively marketing products aimed at the up to 10 million U.S. households they refer to as "the unbanked," or those without a bank account. The banks are focusing on that group's primary need-to send money back home-and hoping they will graduate to checking accounts, credit cards and even mortgages. Right now, Western Union and other remittance companies such as MoneyGram dominate the money-transfer market.

In mid-May, Bank of America breaks a TV, print, radio and out-of-home campaign by Lopez Negrete Communications, Dallas, to introduce Nuevo Futuro ("New Future"), a product aimed at recent Hispanic immigrants without bank accounts. Nuevo Futuro combines SafeSend, a 2-year-old product for sending money to Mexico, with a checking account and other services.

"About 60% of the time we sell SafeSend, we also sell a brand-new checking account," said Javier Palomarez, Bank of America's senior VP-multicultural initiatives.

cultural insights

Last November, Citibank entered the market with the Citibank Access Account, a checkless starter checking account that lets customers use a debit card to send money from the U.S. to be withdrawn from an ATM in another country.

Some striking cultural insights emerged in the research done by Citibank and its Miami-based U.S. Hispanic agency, La Comunidad. For instance, recent immigrants' reasons for coming to the U.S.-to earn money and create opportunities for their families-are so obvious that they underlie Citibank's campaign without needing to be directly stated. And American life is strange, often bewildering, to a homesick outsider.

Absorbing those insights, La Comunidad's ads first show the downside of American life, then explain how Citibank can help with the real, economic goals that brought immigrants here. In a humorous radio ad, a recent immigrant is confronted by the arbitrary 10 a.m. cutoff of breakfast service when he tries to order scrambled eggs at 10:03. In other radio spots, ordering coffee triggers an insane number of choices, and choosing the "For Spanish, press two" option on a phone call leads to a recorded customer service message in garbled, incorrect Spanish.

Ads end with the sympathetic tagline, "There are better reasons why you chose to live in the United States. Citibank Access Account. Access to what you came here for."

"We thought, from a strategy point, Citibank tells them, `We understand how you feel about being in the U.S.,' " said Jose Molla, La Comunidad's founder and creative director. "There's not much we can do about the downside of being here, but a lot we can do to make it worth it, like access to the financial system."


In the TV campaign, a father pushes his little girl on a swing, highlighting the trade-off that working overtime takes the parent away from his family. In one poignant scenario, familiar to anyone who has ever struggled to be understood in a foreign country, a Hispanic immigrant stands in a pharmacy and awkwardly tries out various pronunciations of the word "aspirin" as the pharmacist, making little effort to understand, shakes her head.

Brad Jakeman, Citibank's director-global advertising, said, "No matter how clearly you seem to say things, if you have an accent many Americans have no idea what you're saying." The "Aspirin" spot struck a chord with Mr. Jakeman, an Australian.

Looking for nontraditional ways to mingle with Hispanic consumers, Citibank also did free, community-based screenings of Mexican films, he said.

At Bank of America, the original SafeSend product that will be bundled with Nuevo Futuro has been refined, allowing recipients in Mexico, for instance, to load funds on a debit card and spend them wherever Visa is accepted.

"The way banks have designed and marketed [money-transfer] products so far has not been very successful," said Gwenn Bezard, a senior analyst at research company Celent Communications. "My guess is Bank of America only has about 20,000 [SafeSend] cards distributed. It's difficult for banks to move down market and address the needs of low-income consumers."

But the market continues to explode. A Western Union spokeswoman said that in 2003, the company's transactions between the U.S. and Mexico grew by 22% in number and by 16% in revenue.

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