FEATURE13 April 2011

A fresh look at the Hispanic market

Features News

Market research needs to rethink how it deals with Hispanics, according to online communities firm Communispace. We spoke to Manila Austin, co-author of the company’s new study on Hispanic identity in the US, about the mistakes that marketers and researchers can make when working with this fast-growing section of the population.


Research: What assumptions does research tend to make about Hispanics?
There are a few. One is that this group we call Hispanics is a monolithic group – they’re all sort of the same. That doesn’t really reflect the diversity that this group actually feels and experiences.

Language is another really big one. We have a lot of clients that typically approach this market through an ‘in-language’ approach, in Spanish. The assumption is – and it makes sense because language is a big part of identity – that if you go with an all-Spanish approach in your marketing, or in recruiting and engaging people in your research, that you’re going to be getting the bulk of the Hispanic population. That’s actually not true.

When you insist that people participate in research in Spanish, you inadvertently ignore or exclude the majority of the population. Oftentimes, even if you speak Spanish in many contexts in your life, if you’re consuming certain types of media or if you’re participating online, you don’t necessarily go for Spanish, you’d rather do it in English.

The growing population of Hispanics in the US is US-born, bilingual, bicultural, holding on to their Spanish language – but they do use English a lot, and in a pretty fluid way. So we’ve been very exclusive, unintentionally so, in focusing on in-language approaches to everything.

One of the things we learned is that poor translations from Spanish to English are really off-putting. So if there’s a chance that the translation is going to be lousy or the content isn’t going to be as high-quality as the English version, people get into the habit of just going to the English version.

That’s something people have to keep in mind, but not assume entirely [that English is the best option] because that could also be a mis-step. You have to spend a bit more time asking questions. We have some clients who’ve been working with this group for some time and one thing that helps, frankly, is that they prioritise working with this group in their budgets, which means they’re in a position to ask more questions. That’s something not all companies are prepared to do.

Why is now the time to revisit questions of Hispanic identity?
We’re forced to look at it right now for practical reasons – because of the size of the market. It’s growing so much and it’s large enough now that any notions we have in companies that this group is just going to assimilate into a larger mainstream culture are just silly. These guys are maintaining a unique cultural identity that’s really specific to them and they’re not just going to give it up.

Historically in the United States, we’re used to the black and white thinking that Americans apply to any segmentation system. That black and white model, which is really engrained in our history, doesn’t apply to Hispanics at all. It’s not a racial issue division, but our buckets often come from a racial lens. We have a long way to go from a racial lens to a more cultural one. That’s a learning process for us, it’s where we as a country are moving towards – a more socially broad way of looking at things.

Will that make researchers’ and marketers’ jobs harder?
It is more work, and I don’t think that resources are aligned to do that work. I think, though, that there are probably ways to economise that we just haven’t figured out yet. In our research we asked about ways people were in touch with their Latino identity, and what we found was that regardless of whether you chose to take a survey in English or Spanish, you shared a lot in common when it came to the context that really resonated: values, religion, family, socialising. There are certain things which are more unifying and less dividing [within the Hispanic population], and it’s on us to discover what those are. We can economise by trying to find those commonalities but you have to do it in a way that’s in step with this group and not one that imposes a model on them.

What’s the danger of getting this stuff wrong?
One of our focus groups participants put it really well, she said it’s an on-off thing – one strike and you’re out. They kind of dismiss the brand as just not being a brand that takes them seriously – if you can’t even figure out how to talk to me in a way that’s grammatically correct and respectful, why would I give you my money? It’s almost like a boycott. Sure, it’s different for different people in different contexts, but the risk is that a brand is seen not just as one that doesn’t resonate, but as one that can offend.

Oftentimes marketers assume in this country that Hispanic means Mexican. So they say, ‘We need a Hispanic marketing plan, we’ll just put some Spanish on the packaging and make it spicy,’ because people aren’t taking the time to find out what works and doesn’t work. That’s what the Hispanics we spoke to are mad about, and would like to see addressed differently.

Are there similar issues with other ethnic groups?
We have run communities of African-Americans, and I think there are similar issues. One thing we found with African-Americans is that oftentimes companies will print ads where everyone looks just the same with the same skin tone. Being black doesn’t mean you all have really dark brown skin – there’s a lot of diversity in the way people look and the way people act, and that’s often not reflected. So I think this monochromatic, not very nuanced approach which veers on stereotyping, is a problem that any ethnic group has. Unless we figure out different ways to do that we run the risk of doing that not just to Hispanics and African-Americans but Asians and other groups as well.

Among Hispanics there is a mix of races and nationalities – it’s a whole range of people that call themselves Hispanic, whether they’ve just come into this country or whether they draw that identity from their grandparents’ grandparents. More and more it’s a choice-based thing. Handling the issue of mixed race is tricky, and more and more that’s going to be the norm. I think we’re at a place where what it means to be American is shifting. I think the Hispanic market is pushing us to recognise that mainstream doesn’t look the same as it did 20 years ago.

1 Comment

13 years ago

You've outlined something many of us in business and industry already see, particularly if we are Latino. I also see a big disparity between perception and reality. Reality is that Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Cuban, Nicaraguan, etc., all have a different approach to many things, not the least of which is the way Spanish is used, e.g., a "Torta" isn't the same thing in any of these groups reality, and this based solely on (the same Spanish) language. Nevertheless, the idea of communicating in Spanish should never include the use of what is becoming common place now -- "Spanglish," and it this is used, it should probably be reserved for the English format media. Spanish is a rich language that has much flavor and color, and if the marketers were to study things a bit more profoundly, digging into the roots of where the "pride" of any group here in the U.S. comes from, they would find that there is a commonality -- the language -- that is intertwined with the culture, and while we all share the "Latino" experience in our respective and unique ways, some traditions in all Latin America cross over and make us one group, one people, one voice. Hopefully those in research and marketing can figure that one out before the make another foible like the "NOVA".

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