Does the number 569 million sound like a lot to you? This is the population of Latin America. How about the 46.9 million Hispanics living in the United States? Hispanics already comprise the largest U.S. minority. If you want to attract the increasing purchasing power of the Hispanic consumer, learn more about the culture. Here's a good start.
Misconception #1: Hispanics are one homogeneous group.
Reality: The U.S. Census Bureau came under fire a while back for choosing "Hispanic" as an ethnic category representing U.S. residents originating from Spain and Spanish-speaking America. Why the clamor? Well, "Hispanic" is a cultural term, not an ethnic group. To varying degrees, Hispanics originating from Latin America are descended from European, Native American and Black African groups as well as Asian and other mixes. The U.S. government has had to modify this position. What assumptions should you modify? When you are offered a "tortilla," do you imagine a flat corn wrap (Mexico) or an omelet (Spain)? When you meet "Spanish" people, are they truly from Spain or are they Spanish speakers from a Latin American country? Does every Hispanic sing and dance salsa, merengue, samba, mariachi, cumbia, flamenco and the tango?
Of course all Hispanics are not the same. They are Guatemalans or Cubans or Chileans or Spaniards. The term "Hispanic" refers to anyone originating from a Spanish-speaking country. This extends along a wide range of ethnicities, cultural traditions, regional dialects, diets, political and social backgrounds. In the U.S., immigration patterns from Latin America are heavily influenced by economic and political factors. People coming to the U.S. from the same regions often share common cultural characteristics, customs and behaviors but Latin America comprises incredible diversity. Even more important that their country of origin, families migrating from Latin America are distinguished in their behavior by the socio-economic class they belong to. Some are poor; some are wealthy. Some speak English; some do not. Some seek employment opportunities; others are refugees seeking political asylum. Others come to join family members already living in the U.S. Each group is influenced by distinct experiences and cultural backgrounds.
Lesson: Identify your Hispanic employee, neighbor, client or business partner as a unique individual first, and then, as sharing some common characteristics with compatriots of a similar background.
Misconception #2: Hispanic families have lots of children.
Reality: U.S. statistics do show that birth rates are higher than the average for Hispanic immigrant families. One could argue that since the majority of Hispanics are at least nominally Catholic–and that many devout Catholics do not practice modern forms of birth control–that this would explain why Hispanic families are so large. But that would be jumping to conclusions. Hispanic households typically are larger than average U.S. households; however, this is not because Hispanic couples have more children than Anglo-Americans.
Imagine that a friend or acquaintance inquires about your family. Who are you then thinking about? Your spouse? Your children? Perhaps your parents? Now ask a Hispanic how her family is doing. You will likely hear news about parents and siblings, but also the vacation trip her grandmother took with her aunts, her newborn niece, a cousin who was just married, the uncle who got a new job, and about any other relative with news to share.
Hispanics do not distinguish between 'nuclear' and 'extended' family. Every relative is part of the family. Unless there is a compelling reason to move out of a family home, even grown children will remain. Often a widowed grandparent, unmarried aunt or cousin attending city college will also live with the family, forming a multigenerational household. The great advantage is always having someone available to take care of babysitting and housekeeping duties; having additional sources of household income; and, when there is a repair needed, there is always a talented cousin or nephew to help out. It makes the yellow pages obsolete!
Lesson: It would be a mistake to ignore how close the Hispanic family is, which leads us to the next point…
Misconception #3: Hispanics share the same priorities as Anglo-Americans.
Reality: On the fateful date of September 11, 2001, all eyes were glued to the horrific image of the New York Twin Towers collapsing over and over again on the television networks. Many North Americans can recall where they were on that day and can just as easily recall the visual images and the reporting on the aftermath of the terrorist attack. What many don't realize is that Spanish language television networks in the U.S. were also reporting on the event. It was interesting to note one unique element that distinguished their reporting.
Before beginning the news update, each on-the-scene reporter was first asked how they were feeling, and secondly, whether they had any family members affected by the attack. Curiously, although none had family members directly impacted, each came up with a relative who lived or worked in the city and, upon last report, were safe from the fallout.
Family holds the highest priority, even over one's job. Family unity and respect are held as core values in the Hispanic culture. You may be surprised to learn that in a job interview in Latin America, it is expected that the candidate will talk about his family along with other personal information during the interview process. This gives the interviewer a notion of the candidate's family lineage to discover if he comes from a decent background. Inversely, a job candidate is advised never to speak poorly of or complain about his parents for this would leave a bad impression. A Hispanic is a member of a family and a community first, and second, an individual with specific capabilities and talents.
Lesson: Be inclusive of all family members, whether you work in a physician's office, a social service or government agency or you are a retailer looking for the right promotion to attract Hispanic customers.
Misconception #4: All Latin American immigrants are poor, uneducated and untrained.
Reality: Statistics may show that the majority of immigrants from neighboring Latin America come to the U.S. seeking opportunities for employment that don't exist for them at home. Many are poor. Some are here illegally. Many seek manual labor. Some lack formal education. But there is a difference between formal education and occupational training.
In Latin America, the old-fashioned concept of learning a trade through apprenticeship is still a viable alternative to academic schooling. Many Hispanic workers are talented builders, mechanics and tradesmen. Some accept jobs that they are overqualified for because they are undocumented or because on paper, they do not officially qualify for better positions.
Some may have entered the U.S. due to political instead of economic circumstances. Among the highly educated immigrants, some are not permitted to practice the professions they otherwise qualify for due to bureaucratic obstacles. For example, expertise with the legal systems in Latin America would not qualify a foreign lawyer to practice law in the United States. Doctors, judges, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs count among their numbers. There are laws of employment prohibiting a foreign citizen from occupying a job position for which a U.S. citizen would as easily qualify.
Lesson: Get to know your Hispanic employees and their particular capabilities. You may have a hidden pool of special talents to tap.
Misconception #5: Hispanics don't spend much money here in the U.S.
Reality: During the recent U.S. housing crisis and economic downturn, many homeowners underwater on their mortgages abandoned their properties. An interesting statistic emerged among the data. On average, less Hispanics walked away from their mortgages. Why would this be true? For them, real estate represents a home, not an investment. Once a family has worked and saved enough money to purchase a home, it is the place where the family shares their lives together. Additional family members will find more revenue streams to contribute to keeping the house payments current.
Hispanics are not impulse buyers. They will look for value when spending their discretionary money. Even if it takes time to amass enough money, they will spend to purchase something they really want. It is true that many immigrants will send some of their earnings home to their country of origin to help support those left behind. But this demographic's earning power is growing steadily if only due to the increasing number of Hispanics in the U.S. Those transplanted families continue to raise ever increasingly acculturated children who will adopt more of the typical North American's spending habits. Consumerism is inevitably going to grow among Hispanics in the U.S.
Customer loyalty is high among Hispanics and brand loyalty among acculturated children will expand later if captured early. But they must be won over by value and good customer service.
Lesson: Don't underestimate the purchasing power of Hispanics. Discover their buying habits. Target your marketing efforts to them, and offer them value in your products and services.
Dr. Lori Madden is the author of Deciphering the Latino Consumer: A Guide for Employers, Professionals, Retailers and Business Travelers.
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