How to Market to Hispanics (Like Me)

Don't Target an Ethnicity; Target a Person

By Published on .

Deena Montoya-Crawley
Deena Montoya-Crawley
Recently, I received a direct-mail piece for paper towels. It was well designed and printed on nice card stock. It caught my attention not because I was interested in what was being sold, but because it was in Spanish.

I'm perplexed every time I receive something in Spanish, which happens at least once a month -- because I don't speak the language. I have spent time trying to decipher why companies think they should communicate with me in a foreign language and I have narrowed it down to a few possibilities:

  1. My maiden name has Spanish origins
  2. I checked the Hispanic box in some kind of survey
  3. 40% of the people living in my state are Hispanic
  4. A combination of all the above factors
While the above points do reflect that I'm Hispanic, they don't indicate that I speak Spanish. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, I'm not the only English-speaking Hispanic. In fact, 82% of us fall into the same category.

So why are companies making such erroneous assumptions? Perhaps it's because there has been a race to capture the affection of Hispanics since statisticians started to predict a demographic shift in the U.S. Or maybe it's because of the increasing pressure to be politically correct. Whatever the reason, marketers have done a spotty job winning over individuals who fall into this category.

As a Hispanic, I have seen far too many ads that have focused on blatantly obvious cultural representations like "quinceaƱeras," "piƱatas" and empanadas. My guess is that the advertisers that have used these icons haven't taken the time to truly understand their target . Instead they have Googled cultural symbols and focused their executions on stereotypes. What leads to these misguided campaigns is the attitude that only a surface amount of homework is necessary and any effort will increase market share among Hispanics as long as it is obvious that it's trying to target them.

That said, a couple of companies have done a nice job communicating with Hispanics, so much so that they have been awarded Gold Effies.

The first example comes from the Yaris division of Toyota. When the company decided to market its newest vehicle to the young Hispanic market, it sent agency representatives into the homes of young Hispanics to conduct one-on-one interviews. They discussed everything but cars in these conversations to help put their prospects' overall lives into context. One of the most important attributes the research team discovered via this ethnographic approach was that the group was looking to break free from typecasts and they weren't interested in following a traditional path. This insight led to a campaign called "Mundo Yaris," which recognized the group as trendsetters. Toyota's efforts were successful in making Yaris the most recognized sub-compact vehicle among Hispanics.

Another example is from my own agency. In developing a strategy to curb secondhand smoke for the New Mexico Department of Health, we uncovered a subtle but important insight into the Hispanic community: They weren't afraid to comment about minor health hazards in restaurants (for example, lipstick on a glass), but they were reluctant to speak up when exposed to disgusting and dangerous secondhand smoke. This discovery became the central point of our strategy, and our messaging empowered the community to speak out about their rights. In the end, these strong concerns made their way to the state legislature, which passed a ban on smoking in public places.

While the Toyota effort was created by Conill, an advertising agency serving the Hispanic niche and headed by Hispanics, it's not necessary to be a member of the target audience you are trying to reach in order to be effective. You just need to be willing to work at it. Anastasia Goodstein, a boomer whose field of expertise is Generation Y, articulated it well with respect to generational differences by saying:

Boomers in the youth media/marketing space do bring our own generational baggage to the table when we share our insights and opinions, and it's important to be transparent about where we're coming from. It's also crucial for those of us "old folks" in this space to constantly be checking in with youth, listening to them, looking at real research, etc.
Effective planners can become experts about any target audience they choose, regardless of their background. It's simplistic to think that people are somehow experts on a market segment simply because they fall into a particular ethnic, cultural or gender category. They are experts because they have spent countless hours dedicated to truly, deeply and insightfully understanding their audience.

In the real world of advertising, planners recognize that any well-defined target audience is based on multiple characteristics that go well beyond demographics, including lifestyles, attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, and wants and needs. If I'm being communicated with as a Hispanic alone, the chances of me listening are slim. But if I'm being communicated with as a vegetarian, who's remarkably cheap and has socially liberal views, you're going to get my attention.

In the end, it's my hope that brands, and the agencies that serve them, will strive to be more insightful about those whom their trying to reach. Brands that do so will create affection for their products that is both fruitful and lasting. The next time you want to target Hispanics, don't target "Hispanics." Target people.

Deena Montoya-Crawley is an account supervisor at McKee Wallwork Cleveland, Albuquerque, N.M.
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