America, Hispanics, and Multicultural Marketing [INSIGHT]

By David Morse / New America Dimensions

My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Romania in the early twentieth century.  They spoke only Yiddish.  My grandmother grew up in Boston and was bilingual, though clearly English preferred.   My father understood a little Yiddish, but never spoke it.  Your average New York goy speaks more Yiddish than I do.  

My grandfather was born with the last name Morss, hardly a name for the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland – it was an Ellis Island name.  He changed Morss to Morse when he joined the army.  My other grandmother was a redhead, and proud of the fact that she could “pass” as a Gentile.  Such was “ethnic” America in the twentieth century.

Substitute the word “Italian,” “Polish,” or “Czech” and the story is pretty much the same for the descendants of early twentieth century immigrants.  Assimilation.  Add the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs, intermarriage, and the 1950s ethos of conformity, and it’s easy to see why this occurred.  

But what about today’s Hispanics?  Will they go the way of prior immigrants and amalgamate into the category of “white,” “black” or “Asian?”

Not likely.  Hispanics are not a race, the Mexican term “la raza” aside, and a solid argument can be made that at least genetically, the very concept of race is baseless.  But in the racial structure of the United States, race is a very real thing, and at least on most official forms, Hispanics are already treated as such.  

Unlike African Americans, Asians, or American Indians, however, the U.S. Census Bureau does not consider Hispanics to be a race.  Right now, the Bureau says that Hispanics can encompass any race, though it is actively considering classifying Hispanics as such, maybe as early as 2020.   Most Hispanics bristle at the thought of identifying as white – in the U.S., that means Anglo — though about half of all Hispanics checked that box on the last census.  That’s because the census offered few other options, other than “other,” and racial identification is different in Latin America.  Having a box to check on the census’ race questions would only solidify a distinct racial identity.

But talk of race does little to help marketers understand where the future of Hispanic marketing is headed.  We have to ask ourselves what does it mean to be Hispanic.  And what will it mean or ten or twenty years, given the profound demographic shift toward a U.S. born population?

In our research, when we ask Hispanics what makes them unique, the first thing that many say is the possession of a unique culture and set of values.  Family.  Respect for others.  Politeness.   Hard work.  The food.   The music.  The traditions.  The parties.  

But that’s not especially helpful either. Most cultures, when asked, would say their values and culture make them unique.  Most would name at least several of the attributes listed above.

Then consider language.  Will Spanish have the staying power in the United States that so many other languages have lacked?  95% of Hispanics say that it is important for future generations of Latinos to speak Spanish.  Important? Absolutely.  But will it survive generations in the U.S.?

There is some pretty compelling data in from Pew Hispanic about how English, not Spanish, is the dominant language of Hispanics in the U.S. (LINK: According to Pew, a record 33.2 million Hispanics in the U.S. speak English proficiently, making up 68% of all Hispanics ages 5 and older, up from 59% in 2000. The data for this study was compiled in 2013.
Pew also found that the share of Latinos who speak Spanish at home declined significantly from 2000 to 2013. In 2013, 73 % of Latinos over the age of five said they speak Spanish at home, down from 78 percent in 2000.

On the other hand, nearly 40 million Hispanics speak Spanish at home, a number that continues to increase as the nation’s Hispanic population has grown. On the other other hand, again, a larger share of U.S.-born Hispanics live in homes where only English is spoken: 40 percent in 2013, up from 32 percent in 1980.

Confusing?  That’s because when you talk about Hispanics, you are talking about a population in flux.  Three-quarters of Hispanics today are either immigrants or second generation.  With immigration from Latin America declining, the explosive growth in the population will be from those born here.  And increasingly, their children.

So how do you market to a diverse group such as Hispanics today?  

I’ve been a big critic of Total Market.  I think the term lacks substance and is too often misunderstood.  But I must admit, we as an industry have come a long way.  I know few Hispanic marketing professionals who would disagree with the premise that Hispanics are a heterogeneous group, comprised of individuals who need to be engaged on their own terms, using either English or Spanish – or both.  Ten years ago, there was a strong consensus that Spanish was the way to go.

We’ve come a long way, but apart from language, there is little consensus on what Hispanic marketing will look like in the future.  It’s understandable.  The historic precedent offered by other immigrant groups can provide some insights, but there is much that makes the Hispanic situation unique.

We can, however, make a few solid assumptions about where this population is going.  Among them:

•    Hispanics will make up 30 percent of the population by 2040.   Well before that year, the term “minority” will hardly be an apt descriptor.  Hispanics will be part of the mainstream.  Hispanics will redefine what the American mainstream is.  And targeted marketing, especially in Spanish, will become irrelevant, except as a means of reaching Latin American immigrants.

•    Hispanics will drive the growth in the U.S. population.  As Boomers retire, they will vacate senior positions in both the private and public sector, which it will be up to Hispanics to fill.  Millennial Hispanics will become tomorrow’s power brokers.

•    Hispanic median income and educational attainment will rise precipitously as the population acculturates.  As consumers, Hispanics will drive future increases in consumer demand, and have an increasingly greater voice in the products, services, media, and marketing messages that companies offer.

•    While language will have dubious staying power, a Hispanic worldview will become more salient in mainstream culture.  While “abuelita” will no longer be the familiar face in advertising that she once was, marketers will increasingly appeal to Hispanic values and traditions in mainstream advertising.

•    Expect the trend toward embracing actors with racially ambiguous looks to be the rule in the new America.  Predominately brown and black faces will be the norm on television, if it is still around, and in any new medium that may emerge.  The prototypical American will no longer be considered white.  The typical face we see in media will look more and more … well, Hispanic.

•    It’s hard to say where advances in technology will take us, but the demand for customized content across multiple platforms will increase exponentially.  Hispanics, like mainstream consumers, will dictate the terms under which they will be engaged by corporate America.  The days of marketing to Hispanic consumers as a culturally homogenous group in traditional media will become a historical relic.

There are exciting times ahead for us as marketers.  Those of us in multicultural marketing will have to adapt to the times or go the way of the dinosaurs.  The demographic changes we are going through are indeed profound.  Let us rise to the occasion with imagination, vision, creativity, and vigor.


Skip to content