Marketers Place Accent On Hispanic Market

America's Hispanic population is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2005 it topped 42 million or 14.4 percent of the overall population, a .3 percent jump in the total from 2004. Of course, marketers realize that this represents a huge opportunity. But many advertisers are still grappling with how to target and approach the market.

Immigration from the Spanish-speaking countries of the Western hemisphere, led by Mexico, is creating America's largest demographic shift since the early 20th century. Well over one-third of the country's Hispanic population--about 16 million people--are immigrants. Combined, native-born and immigrant Hispanic Americans now outnumber the 34.3 million Americans who claim Irish descent--and are poised to surpass the nation's biggest ethnic group, German-Americans, who number about 45 million.

What is the single most important division in the overall Hispanic market? It's the considerable cultural difference between the native-born and immigrant populations, according to Elena Marroquin, vice president and director of strategy for Tapestry, a multicultural marketing firm.

Within the immigrant population, it's the amount of time they have lived here. "Above all, their date of arrival and the age they were when they arrived are the most important factors forming their cultural frame of reference," Marroquin says.

She points out that the language of preference flips between recent immigrants and their children: While 73 percent of Hispanic immigrants favor Spanish, only 25 percent of their children do. That number falls to 15 percent by the second generation.

The age of immigration is also a very important factor. Marroquin notes that many marketers don't realize that foreign-born children of recent immigrants prefer to receive media content and marketing messages in English, not Spanish.

Of course, many of the demographic determinants of income and propensity to spend are the same across cultures. Educated people tend to have more disposable income, with income rising alongside education (to a point). But the distribution of education is very different. While 9.4 percent of the American population fails to finish high school, the number skyrockets to 56 percent in Mexico--and among immigrants, it climbs to 65.

The difference carries over into higher education: Close to 25 percent of Americans hold a college degree, but in Mexico, college education is the exclusive preserve of the economic elite, with only 5 percent having completed college overall. In America, 52 percent of the population ages 20-24 has had some college education, compared to only 16 percent of the same age group in Mexico.

A less-discussed but potentially important facet of identity is national origin.

According to Will Cane, the publisher of Quince Girl--a magazine covering the culture and commerce of the quinceañera,an elaborate coming-of-age ceremony for 15-year-old Hispanic girls--national origin is an important area of difference, given the 21 widely varying countries in Latin America. "Hispanic" is really almost a meaningless word, Cane says. "It encompasses several different backgrounds from different geographic locations that are loosely connected by language--but even that is tenuous."

Businesses have marketed to them in a shotgun approach, he says, meaning that they run something en español. He believes the United States is just beginning to figure out the Latino market. However, Cane adds, some institutions, like the quinceañera, are popular across national and cultural borders. "What we've found is that the quinceañera is really one of a few universals. Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, all the way down to Argentina--they all practice the quinceañera, with varying degrees of cultural penetration."

Tapestry's Marroquin disagrees about the importance of national origin in targeting the Hispanic market. While national origin is certainly an important component of Hispanic identity, she says it doesn't necessarily carry over into marketing and advertising. "There really is a Hispanic-ness," she says. "Even though they come from lots of different places, they do tend to view themselves as similar in substantial ways, as 'Hispanic'--beginning, of course, with language."

And for areas where national origin is truly important--travel and tourism marketing, for example--the information-gathering capabilities of the Internet provide the kind of specificity that allows marketers to target ethnic and cultural cohorts. According to Natasha Funk, a senior executive at Terra.com, her site leverages a wide network of home pages based in Latin American countries to connect immigrants with goings-on at home. Through online surveys and tracking their Web destinations, Terra.com catches information about national origin along with the usual demographic data. The network can then target users with special deals, depending on category.