Lost in Translation: Every Market is a Culture

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hispanickids.jpgYou know you have a great product, the price is right, and you’ve spent a bundle on a barrage of slick, witty advertisements.  Yet sales are slack, so your ship sinks while your competitors sail away on surging revenues.  If this sad tale sounds familiar, you may have neglected the most critical aspect of your marketing plan – targeting.  Would you try to sell a stack of Bibles in a Las Vegas casino?   Or a hot cocoa drink in the desert?  Every target is a culture.  Know it well or you’ll miss your mark. 

The Hispanic community is a prime example.  With hefty political clout, rich traditions and a lot of money to spend, this is an ideal target audience for American firms eager for new income streams.  But leaders of the dynamic and diverse Hispanic populace have a message for mainstream corporations.  When you come calling with your hand out, be prepared to offer more than just Hola!    

Community members say much gets lost in translation when American firms try to reach out to them.  Merely converting their English-language media solicitations to Spanish is often ineffective.  When mainstream corporate America fails in its attempt to reach out, it is usually the result of one glaring mistake: assuming all Hispanics are alike, when in truth their origins trace back to a wide range of nationalities – Mexican, Cuban, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Colombian, Ecuadorian, and many more – with distinctly different customs, expressions and cultural sensitivities.  Know your target.

That’s not to say there is no common ground.  In fact, some Hispanics may very well respond to the same media campaigns designed for the general English-speaking population.  Confused?   Don’t be.   Instead, recognize the key factor that absolutely must be measured and respected when targeting a marketing blitz:  acculturation.

“The Hispanic market has been lumped into a big bucket, and that doesn’t serve the market properly.  We’re in an age where we have to listen more carefully to what the audience says.  Before they give you their money, they want to know you went the extra step.  Who’s your audience, what is their age, what are they consuming, where do they come from historically?   If you don’t know that you won’t be successful,” said Salvatore Cavalieri, president and CEO of Cilantro Animation Studios.

Cavalieri said there is no set timetable for adopting the cultural traits and social patterns of another group.  The young may adapt faster than the elderly.  The number of years a Latino has lived in this country is also a factor, as well as the number of generations that have assimilated.  Other key factors include levels of education, and the reasons each person has come to the United States.  Also, the time-frame each person has lived here may shape social references: for example, a person born in the U.S. in the 1980s may respond in a different way than someone who was born in a Latino nation but moved here at the turn of the 21st Century.   And then you must ask, is your target audience first-, second- or third-generation Hispanic?  Knowing the answers to these basic questions will save time, big bucks and the unpleasant blunder that reveals a corporation’s cultural ignorance – a costly setback that may be difficult to overcome.  Know your target.

Helping corporations to take aim and hit a bull’s-eye is exactly why Cilantro Animation was founded.  This state-of-the-art animation studio uses proprietary 3D animation technology to create unique animated characters and commercials for the television and advertising industries.  The 10 staff members represent a wide range of educational backgrounds and Latino-American cultures.  Together they are determined to help compose media messages targeted specifically to the needs and appetites of the growing Hispanic audience in the United States.  

Raymundo Varela, vice president of Hispanic marketing for a pre-paid cell phone firm, believes some American corporations miss their mark because they lack staff, such as members of Hispanic origin, who can help avoid cultural pitfalls.  And some firms are simply too hasty when developing outreach for new segments of society.

“You can’t skip steps.  You have to follow the exact same steps when you create for the general market and the Hispanic market.  You must consider age, gender, other demographic variables, and the grade of acculturation they have,” he said. “And you have to have on your team people who are able to understand that culture and can create something relevant to that target.”

Varela believes corporations too often assume Hispanics are all of Mexican descent. Although 70 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population does hail from Mexico, that culture isn’t dominant in all American cities.  For example, only 4 percent of Hispanics are Cuban, yet in Miami the Cuban population is dominant.   In Los Angeles the Mexican culture is dominant.  Therefore, corporations would necessarily develop different marketing plans for Miami and Los Angeles. 

Greater San Antonio offers still yet another challenge.  Although more than half of the 2.3 million residents are Hispanic, the culture has been present in this Texas city for generations.  “Hispanic?  Yes it is.  But seventy-five percent is acculturated.  So how should I talk to them?   Should I use English?  A combination of English and Spanish?”  Varela said.   Cilantro’s solution: Spanglish.

Another important aspect of cultural relations is knowing the difference between educating and persuading, said Juan Guillermo Tornoe, a marketing consultant in Austin, Texas who authors a Latino marketing and advertising blog called Hispanic Trending.  
“‘Walter Cronkite Spanish’ is perfect if you’re delivering the news.  But if you are persuading, you need to relate emotionally.”

Several years ago, Heineken USA did both in a clever radio campaign called Traducciones (Translations) that won a ‘Best of Show’ Hispanic Creative Advertising Award.  In each spot, a Heineken beer drinker at a party tells a simple story using the accent and slang of a different national dialect: Argentine, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican. The humor came when a second voice blandly translated each colorful, colloquial sentence into standard Spanish.  The advertisements entertained while educating about cultural differentiation.  And they earned a lot of air play: One Houston DJ played the spots constantly simply because he liked them so much.

It is easy to understand why Heineken and other companies have targeted the Hispanic community.  In a report called The Multicultural Economy, 1990-2009 the Selig Center for Economic Growth says the Hispanic population is growing faster than other groups.  By 2009, they say, one person out of every six living in the United States will be of Hispanic origin, up from one in eight in 2000.  And by 2009, Hispanics will account for 9 percent of this nation’s buying power, up from 5.2 percent in 1990.  And in 2006, the Washington Post reported that by 2011 Hispanic buying power will have grown by a daunting 48 percent, to nearly $1.2 trillion.  Who wouldn’t want a piece of that pie?

But just because the population is huge doesn’t mean every Hispanic is a potential client.  Depending on what products and services you offer, it may be wise to narrow your niche.  Knowing a specific culture well will help define a target and avoid the shotgun syndrome: big blast with small returns.

Stephen McGill, president and CEO of Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union (EFFCU), has learned that winning many segments of the Hispanics market is a complex task that demands trust, patience and a tolerance for surprise.

When EFFCU introduced automated phone banking services, McGill decided that the voice commands would be spoken by a person with a Castilian accent, the dialect of Spanish spoken in Castile, Spain.  He felt good about the choice, which he believed was a respectful representation of the language.  But when the phone service debuted, the response was decidedly mixed from a diverse membership with roots in Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil (where Portuguese is spoken) and many other nations.

“We got a lot of praise from people who took pride in that accent.  But a lot of customers didn’t like it.  They had a lot of pride, too, for their own way of speaking.  It’s very difficult to please everybody.  I can’t create a system that uses every specific dialect.  But we’re still evolving in terms of how we can best serve those communities.  And in terms of the groups themselves, I can customize my marketing for them,” he said.

To improve his focus and deepen his ties and reach his goal of growing his 225,000 membership to one million in the next five years, McGill has hired a community development liaison specifically for the Latin market.  And to ensure that he appeals to his target market, he has enlisted the help of Cilantro Animation Studios.

With pencil in hand – and the latest software and imaging technology within reach – the Cilantro Animation artisans begin each new project by sketching characters and concepts.   They know the tone and structure of the animation will naturally emerge from their intimate knowledge of their client – past thrills and spills, and goals for the future.  From there, early drafts will morph into storyboards that express the indispensable visual and verbal elements of their collective vision.    

Cavalieri knows the mind-bending possibilities of 21st Century technology will take his team far.  He knows, too, that proprietary pyrotechnics are empty without the ancient traditions of drawing and storytelling.  For this reason, his staff is a harmonious mix of Pablo Picasso and Bill Gates types. 

“Technology is very democratic.  Anybody with money and the proper resources can get it.   But it’s hard to learn art.  It’s an intrinsic talent.  You can buy software but you can’t buy artistic talent.  So we’re very proud to have artists and storytellers who can create such wonderful characters.  We may be an animation company, but if we don’t have a story that captures your attention – English or Spanish speaking  – we have failed,” he said. 

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