Why Marketing to U.S. Hispanics Is like the Offside Rule in Soccer

Jul 11, 2014

Do you scratch your head trying to figure out the latest trends to reach out to Hispanics in the U.S.? If you answered yes, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The current Soccer World Cup is lending a great analogy to help you think through your strategy to your customers.

A World Cup soccer ball covered in various international flags.

Some rules in soccer, as in other sports, are based on absolutes: if the ball crosses the touchline it’s out of bounds. The offside rule is different; it’s based on the relative position of players from both teams. Culture has the same effect on language; it makes the meaning of words relative. There is no better example of this than an event that captures the attention of all Hispanics from different places: the World Cup.

What you say might be different from what your audience hears

I’m not a trained linguist, but I believe that there are not several Spanish languages. The language is one: Spanish. But when one language is spoken in so many countries by so many people, differences arise, as a major Spanish-broadcasting channel in the U.S. experienced recently during the World Cup.

Enter culture.

In a nutshell, the broadcasters used words that to some Hispanics seem harmless, but to others, in this case U.S. Hispanics, are charged with racial undertones about skin color and hair texture. This can happen to anyone. Managing culture and language nuances is a constant challenge for any marketer, and it is augmented when marketing to U.S. Hispanics, a group that represents most of Latin America to varying degrees.

Look for an approach, not “a” solution

I obsess over content and terminology, it’s part of my job. Clients, prospects and colleagues often ask me if their content should be in “Mexican Spanish.” The question is well intended since most U.S. Hispanics are of Mexican origin. However, it’s a question that can lead down the wrong path because it begs for a single answer, “a” solution.

I prefer to think of the language and culture challenge as something to approach, rather than apply a solution to it. Language and culture are ever evolving, why lock them into a single solution?

Assume you want to reach U.S. Hispanics for a given campaign, promotion or outreach effort in Spanish. You can apply a solution or an approach to this situation.

One solution is to create content in “Mexican Spanish.” You’ll reach the majority of your audience, about 65% of the Hispanic population in the country. Conversely, you’ll leave 35% of your audience to your competition.

As a marketer, I advocate taking an approach. Staff your team with people who can detect the nuances of culture and language, and who have the experience (personal or professional) to manage them. This means hiring Hispanics from different parts of Latin America who, as a group, can obsess over content, raise red flags at terminology that may be offensive, or find a different way to communicate with your audience. A pan-Hispanic team is well equipped to diagnose, prescribe and adapt to the needs of your audience. This takes more work than applying a single solution, but your audience and the market will reward you.

Manage the offside rule

A good soccer player knows how to find the sweet spot in any play: be relevant without being offside.

A savvy marketer must do the same when targeting U.S. Hispanics: have an approach that allows you to communicate and connect without alienating your audience.

Yes, you need to manage the nuances of language and culture, but don’t go to extremes either. Some words are practically universal; I know you’ve been hearing this one lately: GOOOOOOOLLLL!

Alberto Navas is a content strategy consultant working with USAGov en Español (formerly known as GobiernoUSA.gov). This post was originally published on the Hispanic Online Marketing blog.

Editor’s Note: Interested in connecting with other government multilingual content managers? Join the Multilingual Community of Practice and help expand and improve digital content in languages other than English.

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