5 Mistakes You Must Never Make When Marketing To Hispanics: The Rico Vallejos Interview

Rico_Vallejos_Interview.pngWhen companies from 3M, Coca-Cola and Toro to General Mills, American Family Insurance, Hormel and Olive Garden restaurants wanted help connecting with Hispanic consumers, they’ve called upon a friend of our agency’s – multicultural marketer Rico Vallejos of the marketing consultancy RicoLatino.

A keynote speaker at the recent 21st annual Multicultural Marketing Conference in Minneapolis, the Argentinian-born Rico sat down with the MaccaPR blog to reveal his suggestions for what to do – and, good heavens, what to avoid at all costs – when marketing to the Hispanic audience: 

Let’s talk about the five biggest mistakes that traditional PR or advertising agencies tend to make when marketing to America’s 57 million Hispanics. What’s the #1 Hispanic Marketing transgression?

”First and foremost, Hispanic marketing does not mean just translating PR or ad copy into Spanish. (And then paying for some stock photography with models who look vaguely Latino. That’s a really bad idea.)

Rather than mere translation, I like to talk about transcreation – which means, you perform a creative transfer which takes a brand’s original marketing message that was tailored for a mostly white, middle class audience and inform it with the culture and values of another group of consumers. Your copy may be in beautiful Spanish, but you can still send the wrong message to Latinos. Sure, we all want the same thing in life. Every human has core values that we generally agree are important – respect, honesty, responsibility – no matter what your background. But the way in which Latinos prioritize those values in a given situation may be quite different from the priorities that you set, and that’s where our cultures (and approaches to marketing) clash!

By the way, it’s a mistake for marketers to think that all Latinos in America speak Spanish, or only Spanish. Many of us are bilingual. In fact, many bilingual, bicultural Millennial Latinos (I call them Billennials) are English-dominant and may prefer communication in English, even though they understand Spanish.” 

hispanic marketing (1).png

Don’t stop, Rico – what’s the second mistake marketers make in connecting with Hispanics?

“The second is: don’t believe the stereotypes about Latinos. Recently, a client consulted with me about promoting an event with a Hispanic theme, and they came up internally with a design that included images of . . . chili peppers. Now that has been a classic stereotype for over 20 years, that all Hispanics like spicy chili peppers. It seems that some marketers think that you show the peppers, drop in the word “gracias” and bang, you’ve got the Hispanic consumer.” 

Just like no marketer today should consider using images of fried chicken and watermelon in ads to appeal to African Americans (Editor’s Note: See this Grapevine article on stereotype-filled advertising). 

“Right. And they thought chili peppers would connect emotionally with Hispanics. I told my clients, ‘no, that’s a cliché and not representative of Hispanic culture.’ In fact, Hispanic consumers will be turned off by that. And . . . they still went ahead with it!”

Okay for number three, you’ve told me that it’s wrong to believe that the Hispanic audience in America is monolithic.

“Correct. Not all Mexicans like spicy food. Not all Latinos listen to salsa and mariachi music. The typical consumer who emigrated here from Puerto Rico is different from a consumer who came here from Mexico – both may be foreign-born Hispanics, yet they may have very different tastes when it comes to foods and pop culture, and even the way they speak is different. We American Latinos live in a pan-Latino culture yet country-of-origin is still important. It’s worth noting, however, that 2/3 of the Latin community in America is from Mexico, so in some ways, the U.S. Hispanic community is “Mexicanized” to some degree. But be careful – I’ve worked with marketing teams where ad copy was translated in the US by someone from Mexico, but the translation felt as if the consumer was still living in Mexico – the translator didn’t understand the difference between Mexican culture and the culture of the American Latino.

There is no one Hispanic audience. Here’s an example: I worked with American Family Insurance on a direct marketing campaign aimed at Hispanics (pictured below), but we knew there were really two audiences: the Latinos who have been in the US for generations, speak English, and did not need much information on the value of insurance per se. With that audience, we could focus on selling the AFI brand, chiefly in English – persuading these Hispanics why this brand of insurance was better than the others.

Rico AmFam Exito sample - Copy.jpg

But there’s also a less acculturated community of Latinos, many who have been in the U.S. for less than 10 years. For them, we needed to explain – in Spanish – what insurance meant. For them, we had to sell the category as much as the American Family Insurance brand. Many of these Latinos thought that life insurance was only for rich people and that it was limited to whole life, there were lots of misconceptions – so we added copy in Spanish explaining the basics of insurance.”

I believe the 4th mistake involves outright prejudice against Hispanics, right?

“Correct. Marketers with a premium product believe that Hispanics won’t be able to afford it, so they don’t market their product at all to Latinos. The agency’s classism comes out, as they believe that Latinos are inferior economically from the mainstream, and so couldn’t afford the product.” 


Yet, the latest stats show the buying power of Hispanics is between $1.3 and $1.7 trillion in 2017. 

“And you’d even find Millennial Latinos whose “starter” homes cost $500,000, which is pretty suggestive of the emerging professional class in Latino culture.”

Okay, and the 5th mistake in Hispanic marketing?

“Under-budgeting a campaign targeting the Hispanic market. I’ve had conversations with owners of Latino advertising agencies in L.A., New York and Miami. I found that many of us had similar experiences with companies and their general market agencies who’d say: “We want to reach Hispanic consumers, but let’s start small.” Then they proceed to test with inadequate budgets, and then when the results are poor, the CMO will say, ‘Well, we tried marketing to Hispanics, but it didn’t work for us.’ Don’t treat marketing to Hispanics as a silo, as a side show to your total market strategy.”

So, which marketers do a smart job in communicating with Hispanics?

“I’m watching the auto brand, Mazda, with great interest. Traditionally, automotive is a big category for Latinos, and their favorite brand is Toyota (Editor’s Note: Toyota has 18 percent of Hispanic market share, spending $81.5 million on advertising to Hispanics, according to IHS Markit.) But Mazda recently began a very interesting campaign targeting Hispanics, featuring a baseball payer and a sushi chef. Their market research revealed that Latino consumers share many attributes of the ideal Mazda buyer: they love to drive, they want performance and distinctive styling in a vehicle.

But get this – Mazda decided their approach would be to get Latinos to recognize that Mazda is a Japanese company. Many Latinos are wise with their money and they buy Japanese brand Toyota for its perceived value. But, from a styling standpoint, Toyota is a blah vehicle. Incredibly, the Mazda campaign to Hispanics begins with a disruption spot in Japanese-only, even though the ad is running on Spanish TV networks such as Univision and Telemundo! Then the campaign switches from Japanese to Spanish, but still shows Japanese (Kanji) characters that represent the philosophy of Mazda’s brand passion, soul, harmony and perseverance. The concept of Japanese perfection resonates with Latin consumers – this work is so gutsy, and shows lots of cultural insight into Latino consumers.”

(Editor’s Note: In this case, Mazda’s Hispanic-targeted campaign was created by their WPP agency of record, Garage Team, but in collaboration with The Bravo Group, a multicultural marketing agency that also does work for Coca-Cola, General Mills and Campbell’s. Read about the Mazda campaign at AdAge.).”

So we can avoid a multi-cultural gaffe: are we talking about marketing to Latinos or to hispanics?

"Hispanic vs. Latino or Latin@ or Latinx: you can use them interchangeably, that's the current standard. Practically speaking, most national Latino/Hispanic organizations use both, 50/50. For example, when talking in-house with a client, we talk about our Hispanic marketing initiative, yet when addressing the public, we talk about their Latino community involvement. A month ago, I did a survey of major publications and press releases by national Hispanic/Latino organizations and found that they use both Hispanic and Latino interchangeably, 50% each."

SO, what advice do you have for white, majority-culture marketers (like me) who are struggling to get their arms around marketing to Hispanics?

“Take advantage of what I call the Latinization of America. Every U.S. consumer has more Latino/Hispanic culture in their life – no matter where you live, or what your age, race, social class and income range may be. It’s in the foods available to you in restaurants, delis and grocery stores (it’s been over 20 years since salsa became the best-selling condiment in the US, overtaking ketchup), to the widespread availability of salsa dancing and Spanish lessons and music sung in both English and Spanish (think “Despacito”). The fact that "mainstream" American culture includes more Latin cultural icons and values is a positive trend for marketers targeting Latinos. When following a "total market" approach, you have a license to include Latin content without necessarily targeting Hispanics.


In most of the country, and particularly in urban areas, Latino Millennials are a driving force in culture and trend setting. For those living in the Midwest, that isn’t very noticeable, as it applies mostly on either coast and the south. Hispanics already represent a majority of Millennials in a few large metros in the country, and in many other metros they are between 30% and 50% of Millennials. In Minnesota, in even just the Twin Cities metro, my calculation is that Hispanics represent less than 6% of all Millennials. For that reason, Millennial marketing professionals must not make the mistake of thinking that they, by virtue of being Millennials, understand the nationwide Millennial market unless they spend significant time living daily life as locals (vs. tourists) in other major markets.

In short: Embrace the fact that every American is now living in a multicultural world. That’s good news for everyone in marketing and public relations.”

Rico Vallejos can be reached at rico@vallejos.net or www.vallejos.net. 

Image Source: Nielsen / Vix


About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  PR Perspectives

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