Marketing to Hispanic Audiences: Q&A with Alma CEO Isaac Mizrahi

Don’t get lost in translation: Q&A with Alma CEO Isaac Mizrahi

By Nelson Peña

September 27, 2022
The Hispanic market now: What every smart marketer needs to know about language, culture and authenticity

What does it mean to create content for a Hispanic audience in America? What’s the right language and approach? How can your company avoid the messaging mistakes that brands sometimes make (see the National Football League’s recent campaign) and instead make valuable connections with this key audience?

 These are some of the questions that marketers of all kinds are thinking about these days, especially as the Hispanic market continues to grow – now encompassing almost 20% of the U.S. population and nearly $2.5 trillion a year in buying power.

 To get answers, we sat down with one of the country’s top experts in Hispanic marketing, Isaac Mizrahi, the CEO of the award-winning Miami-based agency, Alma. Mizrahi is a board director and past chairman of the board of the Hispanic Marketing Council, and a longtime Forbes contributor on issues of multicultural marketing. Mizrahi’s bookHispanic Market Powerwill be published in early 2023. His insights here provide useful guidance to anyone looking to engage with the Hispanic market.

(Note: The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

What should marketers know about creating content for the U.S. Hispanic market? What are brands doing right or wrong?

MIZRAHI: Everything a brand does communicates. And everything that they don’t do communicates, too. It’s a choice. Not being active in the multicultural market or Hispanic market today, that’s a choice. And it tells a little bit about what brands think about this segment, to be very honest with you.

One of the biggest transformations that this market has experienced over the past decade or so is the realization that culture is what is driving content for the Hispanic segment, and not language. Hispanic marketing in this country used to be about advertising in Spanish or developing content in Spanish. But there are many segments of Hispanics in America. While this includes first generation newcomers to America, the population is also driven significantly by U.S.-born Hispanics. And that makes a big difference because most of these U.S.-born Hispanics are fully bilingual.

And that actually created a big problem a few years ago. A lot of brands reduced the amount of investment to Hispanic marketing on the theory that, because the audience was bilingual, Hispanics didn’t need their own marketing efforts.

And I was one of a few folks out there screaming at the top of my lungs, saying, “No! It’s not about language.” Language is an important component under this bigger umbrella called culture. The attitudes matter; the behaviors matter. They create a sense of identity that allows marketers to create relevant messages that are considered authentic. Authenticity is extremely important.

I think that has been one of the biggest shifts in Hispanic marketing and Hispanic content creation: moving beyond language. Often in the past, it was about taking a message created for an Anglo consumer and translating it to Spanish. But a message that’s irrelevant to me in English will be irrelevant to me in Spanish.

So the problem is when marketers mistake language for culture.

MIZRAHI: I use the analogy of ice hockey. I have nothing against ice hockey. I’ve been to some games. I can feel the excitement. But it’s not something that’s important to me. I’m Brazilian. There is no ice hockey in Brazil. I was not raised with ice hockey. It doesn’t matter how you package ice hockey to me, it’s never going to be as relevant as soccer, as football or volleyball or even basketball. You can put it in Portuguese, which is my mother tongue language — but it’s still not going to be relevant because the relevancy is not about the language.

However, I was once in Japan. I was sleepless at 3 a.m., and there was a soccer game on TV. I don’t understand Japanese. I couldn’t track what they were talking about, but there was a team in red versus a team in white. I immediately picked one, and there I was, cheering and following because that’s something that’s close to my heart, close to my culture. Despite the language barrier, I was engaged with that content for some time.

I know this may sound like a silly example, but for me, it simplifies the idea that language is important but is not what makes content to Hispanics relevant. What they’re looking for is authentic messages. They wanted to see something that’s part of their life and the way that they were raised. And then they say, “You know what? That could be me on that advertising, or on that content or that movie or that book. That’s a little bit a story of my ancestors or what I’m facing right now.”

Those are the relevant things — the way that we dress, the way that we talk, the way that we congregate. Also, our fears and doubts. An example: I have kids born in America, and I don’t think I understand the college application system because it was not my system back in South America. Or there are a lot of Latinos that still have doubts about the way the healthcare system works here, or the way the retirement system works here. These things are important, all under the umbrella of cultural differences.

And this is really what’s at the core of Hispanic marketing in the 21st century. It’s the realization of what elements make content relevant. Yes, understanding the language is important, very important. But the most important thing is to understand the consumers’ lives, attitudes and behaviors under this culture umbrella. And from there, then we can cascade down the message, the content creation.

In trying to find the right message, how can marketers walk the line between authenticity and stereotype?

MIZRAHI: That’s a great a question. I think the answer is by relying on experts. I think that’s the only way you can avoid red flags. But the fact that someone may be Latina or Hispanic doesn’t make her an expert on Hispanic communications. I have seen so many brands saying, “But I talked to a guy that works in HR, and he’s Mexican, and he saw the ad, and he translated.” But the guy in HR is not an expert. I tell them, “Really sorry, but you’re being cheap. You’re cutting corners.” You should be hiring an agency or true advertising or content experts.

Sometimes Anglo clients may approve something without knowing it’s stereotypical because the idea fits into what they expected. That’s how you end up with the guy with the sombrero or the mariachi band. It may seem authentic. So I think that all content providers and agencies — we have a responsibility to educate what is authentic, what is not, what is stereotypical, what is offensive. There is a role for mariachis – actually, our agency has developed campaigns using mariachis before, but in the right context, and with a fresh twist. We once did a campaign for a Mexican beer, and we found a mariachi band in which all the members were women. That was a fresh twist on an old tradition.

Another stereotype is the Hispanic grandma, or abuela. It’s a stereotype, but there is a context where it can work. We did an ad for State Farm where it was a competition between who knew more: the abuela or the voice activated AI, like Alexa. So we had some fun with that. I’m not saying that we are brilliant — we can make mistakes, too. But only experts understand context. And if there’s a doubt, we also can do research to see if something would be controversial or not.

Sometimes, the stereotype isn’t effective not because its offensive, but because it’s not a new idea. It’s been done. Sometimes it’s not about whether something is offensive, it’s about being relevant. It’s about what is going to increase the authenticity.

It seems like some people think of the Hispanic market as one monolith, when the reality is quite different.

MIZRAHI: One of the things that I always talk about is segmentation. The 62.5 million Hispanics in America can be further segmented, including by income. One cluster is Hispanics with a household income of $150,000+ a year. This can be a great target for various clients, such as clients in financial services. So, in that case, instead of talking about Hispanic marketing, they should be focused on high-income Hispanic marketing.

Other key segments are generational. We know the Hispanic population is much younger than the rest of the U.S. Do you see differences in how to market to the different generations of Hispanics?

MIZRAHI: Different generations see culture in different ways. For instance, the younger the generation, the higher the expectations when it comes to brands supporting the community. Brand purpose is something very important for young consumers. So, if you’re going to do a Hispanic campaign to teenagers and young adults, you have to be very careful not to overpromise about your brand’s role in the community because these consumers, they really know who is just talking and who is actually doing.

Some brands are more likely to use English for younger Hispanic audiences and Spanish for older ones. Does that make sense? 

MIZRAHI: The data that we are seeing shows that even the younger generation is still consuming a lot of content in Spanish. I don’t think this is because they cannot speak English. It’s because the content they are looking for is not offered in English. At the end of the day, what they’re consuming is Latin content, Hispanic content. And it happens to be in Spanish because it’s not available in English.

The truth is, I don’t think that you have to make a decision on whether you go Spanish or English at the macro strategic level. I think you have to have a great idea. And then depending on the channel mix that you’re going to be using, you may go one language or the other one. For me, the discussion on language always becomes subordinate to what’s the best way to reach this person at the lowest cost per thousand. If you have an idea that’s very strong, it can work in both languages. But everything starts with the idea that is strategic and consumer relevant — and then you find the ways to distribute it. The problem is when the idea is created in a vacuum by an Anglo agency without consulting the experts.

Any closing thoughts for marketers who are trying to get it right? Are there trends to keep an eye on?

MIZRAHI: I think the biggest trend always is to put culture ahead of everything. The way marketers managed their resource allocation in the past may have to change because they have been treating multicultural marketing, Hispanic marketing, as an incremental thing. Meaning, if they find incremental dollars, they would invest. And I think that the segment has enough scale to demand more than that. To demand its own proper resource allocation based on size, based on growth potential, based on whatever criteria people want to establish. But it’s not something that if you find the money you invest. It shouldn’t be the first thing cut when you have a budget cut.

I think that the critical mass has been achieved, it’s already 20% of the population, more in some categories of sales, and significantly more in some categories if you look at growth. So resource allocation needs to change. There are still companies that are treating this as a luxury, something they would love to do if they have the resources. People need to figure out the resources. They need to rearrange where they’re investing because reaching this audience cannot be treated as a “maybe nice to have” investment. It’s bigger than that. And it’s about more than just taking a message and translating it into Spanish.

What is your strategy for connecting with Hispanic audiences? We would love to hear about how you approach language, culture and authenticity. Send us a message and we’ll share some ideas on how we can help.


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