January 18, 2013, 10:36 am

Are Businesses Hesitant to Connect With Hispanic Consumers?

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An insider’s guide to small-business marketing.

As we learned in the recent presidential election, it’s always a good idea to connect with Hispanic Americans. In many parts of the country, this is as true in business as it is in politics. But for some reason, many businesses seem hesitant to try to appeal to this big and important demographic.

At my boutique advertising agency in Austin, Tex., I see lots of opportunities for businesses to set themselves apart and pick up some market share by reaching out. But I am often puzzled by the number of retail and professional service businesses that pass up these opportunities. When we have broached incorporating Hispanic outreach with retailers, we have explained why outreach makes business sense and how subtle shifts in their marketing programs might appeal to Latino consumers. The initial reaction has been one of surprise, intrigue and excitement — followed by little or no action.

Here’s what we know about the size of this large and growing market: According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Hispanics control $1 trillion in annual buying power in the United States. By 2015, Selig projects that power to grow to $1.5 trillion, basically the size of the economy of Mexico. So why does this large and desirable population continue to be overlooked by many businesses?

Over a recent lunch of tortas de hongo and nopales at an East Austin Mexican restaurant, I posed this question to Juan Tornoe of Cultural Strategies, a multicultural marketing and communications firm my agency has partnered with. Mr. Tornoe is chief marketing officer at Cultural Strategies and also writes a Latino marketing blog called Hispanic Trending. His insights have been quoted by The Times, NPR, CNN and many others, and as you’ll see, he is quite passionate about Hispanic marketing.

Mr. Tornoe said that while he has spoken on this topic at lots of national business meetings, he too often sees lots of enthusiasm but little action. Why is that? He believes one reason is that many marketers think they have to advertise in Spanish, and he suspects this intimidates them. But he insists that reaching this demographic does not require Spanish-language advertising. In fact, he said, placing a few Spanish-language ads on Telemundo or Univision is unlikely to accomplish any goals.

This confusion, he said, was apparent last summer when Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Some people were surprised to learn that Mr. Castro is not bilingual. “Many business people think that Spanish language is the only thing that defines people as Latinos,” Mr. Tornoe said. “Julian is an English-dominant guy because his mother, the daughter of an immigrant, got ridiculed at school because of her English. So she made sure her kids’ first language was English.”

Mr. Tornoe also cited the presidential campaigns and the advice the candidates must have received from their staffs that the only way to reach out to Hispanic voters is through Hispanic media. “That is completely untrue,” he said. “If you are Univision, you go out there and tell the world, ‘I bring you the Spanish market.’ But the fact is, they bring you Spanish-dominant Latinos, which is a smaller percentage of the Spanish market as a whole.”

The biggest growth in this fast-growing demographic, he said, is coming not from immigrants but from the birth of second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans. “Some Latinos,” he said, “get ticked off when you reach out to them in Spanish — those who are third or fourth generation.”

Mr. Tornoe cites himself as an attractive target for any marketer. He is 44, an immigrant from Guatemala, and he lives in Austin. “According to media and advertising circles,” he said, “I should be glued to Telemundo, Univision, and Spanish-language radio, newspapers and Web sites. But the reality is, I don’t access any information in Spanish. Everything I absorb is in English.”

He finds most businesses that try to reach Spanish audiences try to simplify marketing to a degree that renders their efforts ineffective. But there are some marketers, he said, who get it. For example, he noted a Volkswagen commercial you may have seen that shows two guys getting in a car for a road trip. The point of the ad, titled Vámonos, is to highlight the fuel efficiency of a Passat. The guys, who don’t speak Spanish, start a Spanish-language lesson CD as their trip gets underway. At their first stop, a gas station, they alight from the car speaking Spanish fluently and with passion.

“This ad is brilliant in so many ways,” Mr. Tornoe said. “They get the gas economy point across. And for Latinos who are not glued to Hispanic TV, suddenly those guys are speaking to us in Spanish! And they reflect my reality that I live a very bilingual and bi-cultural life. I have no idea if that was the advertiser’s intention, but it was a huge home run.”

Personally, I believe Volkswagen is much too savvy a marketer for the language these guys were learning to have been just a happy creative coincidence. In my next post, I will offer some suggestions on how small businesses can better connect with this audience.