The nation's food industry is encountering a few unexpected stumbling blocks as it rushes to embrace the Latino consumer dollar. In fact, numerous advertisements and promotions aimed at this increasingly influential ethnic group came under fire here for being inaccurate or insensitive.
The forum for the criticism was a recent three-day conference entitled, "How to Reach the Hispanic Consumer," sponsored by the Mexican-American Grocers Assn., a Los Angeles-based trade organization of independent food store owners.
Several speakers emphasized that more than just a hastily made Spanish-language television commercial or a bilingual package label is required to successfully dip into the wallets of this rapidly growing community.
The audience, which was certainly receptive, consisted of more than 300 food manufacturers and retailers representing some of the nation's largest household products firms.
The reason for the attentiveness is that the Latino market continues its rapid expansion rate. In California, 19% of the state's residents, or more than 5.8 million people, are estimated to be descendants of Mexican or Central American parentage. This group alone represents $18 billion in spending power. Nationally, the Latino population is as high as 17.6 million and has become a major economic force in Texas, south Florida and New York.
"Marketing to Hispanics is not a question of being fashionable. It's economics," said Leonard Goldstein, senior vice president of the Miller Brewing Co.
Exactly how to avoid mistakes and maximize effectiveness in selling everything from laundry detergent to canned peas through the various segments of this diverse community was the focus of most seminars.
The corporate mission is particularly difficult because the Latino community is highly segmented. The market includes foreign-born immigrants, first-generation Latinos and Latinos who have lived in this country for several generations. So, what may be effective with one group does not necessarily succeed with another. As a result, many speakers underlined their presentations by pointing out the failed and problem-plagued attempts.
For instance, Anheuser-Busch lost good will when the company published advertisements in the Spanish-language media for its flagship brand, Budweiser. The ads literally translated the slogan, "The King of Beers."
However, the subsequent Spanish phrase used by the company was grammatically incorrect, according to Angela Sanchez-Armass, a marketing analyst for Rendon Enterprises in Los Angeles. The Spanish word for beer is cerveza , a feminine noun, which thus requires a feminine adjective. Consequently, to properly use the beer's claim to royalty in Spanish, the ads would have had to state that Budweiser was the "queen of beers."
"Insensitivity to cultural differences results in insults to Hispanic consumers," she said, in reference to the gender error.
Along these same lines is a current ad for Tide Liquid Detergent, which attaches the Spanish suffix, "o" to an English word syrup. The ad thus creates a word, syrupo, which is meaningless in either language, Sanchez-Armass said.
Another miscue cited was Procter & Gamble's practice of simply dubbing Spanish voices onto its English language television commercials.
"Procter & Gamble's Anglo strategy (in its commercials) may not appeal to the Hispanic market," said Jorge Garrido of the Garrido Group, a Miami-based advertising agency. "It's like looking at a foreign film that's been dubbed. (The commercial) has no effect (on the audience)."
Product promotions have also misfired. Vita-Pakt Citrus Products Corp. scheduled a major in-store campaign for its orange juice during Easter week against the advice of several Latino grocery store owners.
Local merchants, such as Joe Sanchez Jr. of Civic Center Sales in Los Angeles, warned that the effort would be lost amid the predominantly Catholic community's special meal planning during the Lenten holidays. Despite the objections, the campaign went forward and then fell far short of expectations.
Contributing to the errors is the tendency of several multinational food companies to hire marketing experts from Latin America and Europe rather than seeking out bilingual Americans, according to Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente).
"One of the mistakes the food industry is committing is to recruit (Latin American and European) executives into the corporate structure," he said. "They are brought in from Mexico, Spain and Argentina and they don't understand the colloquialism of the U.S. market. . . . Corporations feel they're filling a vacuum, but they haven't met the Latino marketplace needs."
One oft-repeated suggestion heard throughout the convention was that food companies should become active in the Mexican-American community and work closely with the food stores that serve these areas, rather than run a lone promotion each year centered around Cinco de Mayo .
So, while the profit motive encourages food companies of all sizes to become involved with the Latino community, the question of how far the commercial sector should go in creating an entirely separate Spanish marketplace within the United States was discussed by Rep. E. "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
"(Marketing to Hispanics) is not separating a people from the mainstream, but helping to bring them into the flow," he said. "It's simple economics. . . . A grocer's product mix changes with the demands of his customers. And there may be a day when no one will eat chorizo in Los Angeles. At that time, (today's) needs will melt into others. But it won't happen for a long time."
Meanwhile, making Lowenbrau, Wesson Oil and Campbell's Tomato Soup as prevalent in the nation's Latino communities as the items are throughout the rest of the country may involve simply talking to a grocer who owns a store on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, according to one of the Mexican-American Grocers Assn.'s founders.
"All these high-priced consultants from the major food companies come down (to Whittier Boulevard) and ask me how to market to Latinos and what these people buy," said Manuel "Cal" Soto, owner of La Quebradita Market for the past 20 years. "These guys are from Ohio, or someplace, and are always real nice to you. They're supposed to be the experts. . . . Well, I'm the expert on the subject. I'm (there) 12 hours a day with all kinds of people."