The Hispanic Challenge of Media and Language Planning

09 Aug 2005|Felipe Korzenny

In 1980 there were about 10 million Hispanics in the US according to the US Census Bureau. In 1990 there were about 23 million, and 35.4 million in 2000. US Census Bureau estimates for July 2003 indicated that US Hispanics were about 40 million people. The explosive growth over the past 25 years has been fueled largely by immigration. Immigration to the US accelerated as economic conditions in Latin America deteriorated dramatically over the same period of time. Mexico, the key exporter of Hispanics to the US, has been the barometer of Hispanic immigration to the US. Mexicans largely define the shape, size, and profile of the US Hispanic market.

This explosive growth does not take into consideration the conservative estimate of the Pew Hispanic Center that has published estimates that there are 11 million undocumented individuals in the US in 2005, of which about 6 million are Mexican, and another 2.5 million are from other countries in Latin America. It is intuitive to those who have followed the development of the US market that these estimates should be undercounting the actual number of undocumented US Hispanics.

The US Census Bureau has engaged in an aggressive campaign to encourage undocumented residents of the US to complete census forms. Despite their good intentions and work, it is difficult to imagine that undocumented Hispanics would complete official census forms. If there are over 40 million Hispanics accounted for and a minimum of 8.5 million likely unaccounted for, it can be postulated that conservatively there should be close to 50 million Hispanics in the US without counting Puerto Rico. That makes the US the second largest Hispanic country in the world behind only Mexico. The next most populous Hispanic country after the US is Colombia with an estimated 47 million and then Spain with about 40 million.

In addition to substantive numbers the Selig Center of the University of Georgia has estimated that the buying of US Hispanics in 2005 is over 750 billion dollars. The same organization has provided projections that in 2008 the buying power of US Hispanics is likely to reach one trillion dollars. This later figure will make the US Hispanic market more affluent that the entire country of Mexico and one of the largest economies of the world.
But How Do You Reach Them?

These estimates and projections have made the US Hispanic market the subject of increased marketing attention. Also, these figures have energized the debate of how to reach these consumers.

Traditionally, the majority of the Hispanic marketing and media industries have reasonably argued that the Spanish language is the best way of reaching US Hispanics. The US Census Bureau and other sources have consistently shown that about 80% of US Hispanics are identified as speaking at least some Spanish at home. The reasoning has been that if Hispanic consumers largely speak Spanish at home, then the language in which they need to be approached with commercial messages should be Spanish. The reasons for this vary. Most importantly, if consumers depend on the Spanish language for communication and comprehension, then Hispanic consumers must be reached in Spanish.

There are also more subjective but equally important reasons. It has been argued that the language of the heart is Spanish because being it the language of the home it reaches emotional cords more directly than in the English language. A further argument is that Hispanics take pride in the Spanish language in recent times because it has become increasingly “cool” to be Hispanic. Hispanic parents now encourage their children to master the Spanish language because it makes young people proud of their heritage and more employable. In sum, it is largely accurate that the Spanish language among US Hispanics is now more than a tool for communication, it a symbol of cultural pride.

It Is Not That Spanish Is Not Important

The above are intuitive and logical arguments. The key problem is that new available data makes the assumption of widespread Spanish dependence less tenable. The key point to be made here is not that the Spanish language is not important, on the contrary. The point is that the assumption that Hispanics are only and primarily reached in Spanish needs to be re-addressed.

Despite all the common sense arguments, Hispanics, even those whose first language is Spanish say they watch about half their dose of weekly TV in English and half in Spanish (Yankelovich Multicultural Monitor 2003 in collaboration with Cheskin and Images USA). The US Census Bureau provides data that shows that over 70% of those who are designated as speaking Spanish at home also understand English well or very well. In Sum, a conservative estimate is that over 56% of Hispanics who speak at least some Spanish at home in the US may be reached in English. And there is the 20% that do not speak Spanish, thus close to 76% of all US Hispanics may be reachable in English.

While reaching specific groups of Hispanics in Spanish will continue to be important for a long time to come, media strategists need to start thinking differently. It is not just Spanish language media that reaches Hispanics. It would be illogical to think that despite overwhelming access to English language media and messages Hispanics just ignore them. Even in small markets there are many times more TV, radio, and print offering than Spanish language ones. While Hispanics are likely to have a strong affinity for their language, they look at what English language media has to offer. Thinking that Hispanics only look at Spanish language media would be unrealistic even in the case of those who depend on the Spanish language.

A Complex Media Planning Environment

In a complex media environment, the complexity of the media planning needs to correspond to consumer behavior. Hispanics “flip” channels and are curious about what is available in their media market. Many Spanish dependent Hispanics may watch English language media if for nothing else to learn English.

Talking about complexity, the Hispanic family will continue to increase in diversity of its internal language and other behavioral orientations. While the mother may be Spanish dependent, the father may be Spanish dominant but proficient in English. The grandmother may be totally Spanish dependent, and the two or three young children may speak Spanish at home but fluent English outside of the home. If this family is exposed to different messages depending on what they watch on traditional Spanish or English media they may have seen very different approaches and brand characterizations. If this family makes product decisions they talk to each other and each family member may come from a somewhat different perspective.

New and realistic approaches to the Hispanic market will need to consider the reality of the media environment of US Hispanics. Media planners will have to start thinking about cross-language strategies. Some may place Spanish language messages in English language media. Some may place English language messages in Spanish language media. Others may find it more relevant to place English language messages in English media when targeting specific groups of Hispanics. Many may combine their approaches and should have consistent and culturally relevant messages in both Spanish and English language media, in their respective languages. This latter approach is geared to providing positioning consistency for Hispanics who are exposed to both media.

The communication strategist should not be bound by dogma but by pragmatism. The strategist has the mission of reaching Hispanics with the complete palette of alternative and complementary media. The Spanish language will continue to be very important for US Hispanics and US society in general. Still marketing communications need to acknowledge the duality of life of US Hispanics. Media outlets will need to diversify their offerings to serve Hispanics, and advertisers, in both languages. Mun2 is an example of how a media group understands the diversity of the market and the need to reach different segments with different approaches and different languages.
Challenges For Market Research

Market research focusing on Hispanics will have to account for linguistic and media exposure diversity. This is a very difficult task because consumers typically have a hard time remembering where they have seen ads and promotions. Still, this is a challenge that the research industry needs to raise to. The key question is: What is the media and cultural environment where different Hispanic segments obtain their information and consumer guidance? Other research issues that need to be addressed include:

a. For those Hispanics exposed to both, Spanish and English language media, what is the relative emotional weight of the messages received in each medium?

b. What is the impact of the influence of different family members, with different linguistic abilities and preferences, on the ultimate decision to buy cars, homes, financial products, etc.

c. How do consumers process discrepancies between messages for the same brand when the product is differently communicated in Spanish and in English?

Market strategy that addresses these issues will have important implications for Hispanic marketing in the US, and for cross-cultural marketing everywhere where marketing must operate in multicultural environments.

Some of the ideas in this article are further elaborated in the book Hispanic Marketing: A Cultural Perspective by Felipe Korzenny, Ph.D. and Betty Ann Korzenny, Ph.D. published by Butterworth Heinemann/Elsevier in August 2005.

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