Selling in Spanglish

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There's an old urban legend about the Chevy Nova flopping in Latin America because the car's name, in Spanish, means "won't go." The lesson of this tall tale, know thine target, has revived relevance to a new generation of marketers, who, after years of simply translating their mainstream English-language advertising into Spanish, are now creating product lines for U.S. Hispanics. Among these: Hershey's Cajeta Elegancita candy bar. The Mexican term for caramel flavor made with goat's milk, "cajeta" is also a word for female genitalia in Argentine slang. This idiomatic tangle highlights but one of the challenges of marketing to so disparate a group as the 37 million U.S. Latinos.

Hispanics in the U.S. "live in two worlds," says Alex Pallete of the Hispanic ad agency Vidal Partnership. But their Latin world is remarkably diverse, which means that advertisers must hit common cultural cues and appeal to U.S. Latinos' shared values and experiences—like close-knit families or having loved ones in another country—while reinforcing the brand identities that Hispanics recognize. Casting agents often seek neutral accents and ethnically appropriate actors who appeal to a broad spectrum, a task more complicated than it seems, even though about 67% of U.S. Latinos are of Mexican heritage. In some Latin American countries, people with the lightest skin color make up the elite and dominate the media, including ad images. This jars with the American take on diversity, says Andrew Speyer, of the Zubi agency in Miami: "Most advertisers in Mexico are not portraying the average Mexican, so it gets tricky when the [American] clients see casting that doesn't fit what they recognize as 'Mexican' or 'ethnic.'"

Of course, with the U.S. population expected to be 25% Hispanic by 2050, hitting the Hispanic sweet spot isn't just politically correct, it's a business necessity. Even as big companies like Hershey's, Citibank and Proctor & Gamble roll out products just for American Hispanics, advertisers already see the next frontier to be Latino-centric mainstream marketing, the same way hip-hop, urban culture has pervaded the general ad market in the past decade. Crest, P&G’s flagship toothpaste, has just named 5-year-old Cuban-born girl Enya Martinez its new “Crest Kid,” the all-American advertising icon represented in the 1950s by kids drawn by Norman Rockwell. "For anyone under 30," says Gary Bassell, head of the Bravo Group, a Hispanic agency, "it ain't cool to be white anymore." Which makes it all the more important for advertisers to figure out what kinds of branding will work—and which will no va.