A humorous piece in the New Yorker about a teacher's struggle to hold a Day of the Dead celebration in her pre-school classroom reminded me of how marketers view what is arguably the most widely celebrated Latino holiday, Día de los Muertos. While it is ripe with marketing opportunities, the notion of associating with a holiday with the word "dead" in its name still scares many of even the most risk-taking of brand managers.
In reality, Day of the Dead is a celebration of life and legacy and not morbid or mournful. It is not, as is often said, the Latino Halloween. Rutgers University media studies professor Regina Marchi has traced its evolution from "a family-oriented observance focusing on the ritual preparation of homes and graves in honor of departed relatives," to "an advertised cultural event celebrated in art galleries, community centers, schools, libraries, museums, and parks."
But even as these events proliferate across the United States, they seem to be virtually sponsor-less and have limited brand participation. A widely popular celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles appears to have El Jimador Tequila as its sole sponsor. This year, the Hershey-owned Mexican candy Pelon Pelo Rico offered samples, but otherwise food and art booths were local "grassroots" vendors with no signature Corporate America brand activations in sight.
The Smithsonian's digital Day of the Dead page, however, does carry the Disney logo. And marketers are warming up to Day of the Dead's possibilities, with beer and alcohol brands stepping up first. But it is not yet a mass-market play. The primary targets are Latino influencers and affluents and influential non-Latinos who are active in cross-cultural social circles. Examples include UrbanDaddy.com's evening of Día de los Muertos cocktailing at the Rivera restaurant in Los Angeles, with small bites by Esquire magazine's Chef of the Year, John Rivera Sedlar. Texas' oldest Craft Brewery, Saint Arnold , has launched Santo , with label artwork by Carlos Hernandez, an artist known for his Day of the Dead Rock Star series. Retailers like Central Markets in Austin are hosting on-premise Day of the Dead festivities that offer interactive family experiences for Latino and non-Latino shoppers alike.
What's next? Skin-care companies? With all the face-painting and makeup removal going on, why not a Day of the Dead collectible Kleenex box? Pan de Muertos recipes are popping up, along with skull-inspired recipes, on the bilingual, bicultural sites of General Mills, Kraft and Unilever. It can't be long before someone leverages the centerpiece of all Day of the Dead celebrations -- the altars -- taking product integration to a whole new level (or does that cross the proverbial line?).
Certainly, Halloween is a Latino-marketing opportunity. It is the second biggest holiday for consumer spending after Christmas, and costume selections are expanding to include Latino-inspired monsters and legendary characters like La Llorona and the Chupacabra. This does not, however, negate or duplicate Day of the Dead.
There is much to be gained by sponsoring or underwriting culture. Corporate support and funds are critical to struggling arts and cultural groups, including Self Help Graphics, the East Los Angeles arts collective considered to be the first organization to feature a public Day of the Dead celebration in 1973. Investing in organizations like this, and enabling cross-cultural experiences to flourish, will ultimately pay dividends as young, influential Latinos recognize brands for just being there, in their world, embracing those things that are of specific cultural value to them.
Assuming that more marketers will be adding Day of the Dead to their scheduling calendars, two key questions arise:
- Can non-Hispanics embrace and participate in the experience without trivializing it or distilling it down to its most superficial level? Can they avoid the temptation of making it an inaccurately positioned Latino version of Halloween?
- Can Day of the Dead avoid what might be called "Cinco de Mayo Syndrome," in which a holiday has gained broad consumer and marketing appeal, though most celebrants have no idea what the drinking and partying is really about?
Young Latinos are trying to take back Cinco de Mayo -- it's actually a celebration of a Mexican military victory over the French -- but it might be too late for that . Day of the Dead, on the other hand, could easily be the holiday that gets to "represent." It credibly aligns with pride in heritage and authentically celebrates the contributions of Latinos past and those yet to come. Marketers need not fear Day of the Dead, they simply need to experience it, respect it and contribute to its cultural preservation.