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A Driving Force - Marketing Cars to the Hispanic Market

Posted February 15, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Americans.
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By Tom Incantalupo | Newsday

When Honda targets Latino and Asian consumers in ads for its Accord, it most often pitches the sedan version. When the carmaker targets African-Americans, it emphasizes the sportier coupe. When Ford advertises its Focus to Hispanics, it emphasizes the small car’s attributes as a family vehicle. But the carmaker pitches it to other groups as a fun-to-drive vehicle for the young.

The rationales? Honda says its market research finds strong family orientation among Latinos and Asians but a greater emphasis on style among African-Americans. The Ford agency that handles ads aimed at Latinos says a small car tends to be the first family vehicle for newcomers to the United States, many of whom are Hispanics.

Is it stereotyping or is it smart marketing?

Whichever it is, experts say, such racially or ethnically targeted marketing is a minefield—where companies, if they’re not careful, can fail to reach the people whose dollars they seek. Worse yet, they could even alienate them. “It’s very touchy stuff,” said Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles consultant in brand marketing. “It has a hair trigger.”

Yet, dangerous or not, more auto companies are specifically targeting minority groups in hopes of tapping their growing economic power.

Steve Jett, advertising manager for Toyota’s U.S. sales unit, says his company’s advertising to minorities has risen by 100 percent in the past five years and will rise by another 18 percent in the current model year.

Ethnic and racial minorities are the fastest growing segments of the population and will make up 38 percent of the total by 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from about 31 percent now and 25 percent in 1990. Buying power rose faster for minorities than for Anglos—by as much as 294 percent for Hispanics, now the largest minority, to $653 billion a year—from 1990 to last year, according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.

As a beginning, experts in the field say, it’s important that minorities—who often have been excluded from many areas of American life—know that the product in question is for them, too. Placing ads in magazines such as Black Enterprise and Latina or in Chinese language newspapers is basic, as is showing African-American, Asian or Latino families rather than Caucasians sitting in a car or visiting a dealership. Manhattanite Bonnie Wong, a Chinese-American who heads the nonprofit technical support group Asian Women in Business, says of seeing other Asians in ads, “It just seems like they want our business and they’re spending some time and effort to let us know it.”

Less impressed is Monique Reid Berryhill, an African-American attorney from Freeport, who says she’s a loyal Toyota Camry owner because she likes the car, not because of any ads. “I don’t care if they put Bozo the clown in them,” she said.

Showing two men or two women together in a car or dealership can send a similar message to the gay and lesbian community, experts say. Several carmakers, including Subaru, Volvo and Jaguar, are doing just that.

There’s more, though, to reaching minorities—at least according to ad practitioners, who say it’s a matter of determining what pushes their buttons. “It’s not only about in-language marketing, it’s about in-culture marketing,” said Frenchie Guajardo, a fourth generation Mexican-American and a principal at the marketing firm PowerPact of Richmond, Va.

Chrysler Group marketing communications director Julie Roehm said, “We strive to find ways to know what these cultures are about and then try to reach them.”

For example, while DaimlerChrysler will highlight the same minivan features, such as new seats that fold into the floor, in its English language and Spanish ads, the one targeting Hispanics will show a grandfatherly figure putting on a puppet show for youngsters at a birthday party—purportedly a traditional way that Hispanics entertain children, said Roehm.

And, although the company will pitch the minivans to Hispanics, it’s more likely to feature its more stylish Dodge Durango and Jeep Liberty SUV in ads targeting African-American buyers, who the carmaker calls the “urban” market of style-conscious trendsetters.

Based on its own research, Toyota advertises its Camry to Hispanic buyers as a stylish car to aspire to, Jett said. A recent Spanish language Camry ad in Latina magazine said, “The only thing that compares with the pleasure of driving it is the pleasure of showing it off.”

Said Rachel Weingarten, whose GTK Marketing Group in Brooklyn helps companies with product launches and brand positioning, “You can’t just change the color of the skin; you have to change the message and speak to what they want.”

That can get tricky. Celeste Hernandez of Bayside, a Puerto-Rican American and executive director of the Long Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says it’s true that Latinos tend to have strong family values but says she’s disturbed at what she perceives as an another assumption in ads directed at Latinos: that they respond well to sexual imagery.

“I feel put upon,” she said, “that someone would make the assumption that that would be a common denominator for my culture to get them to walk in the door and purchase anything.”

Yet much minority-targeted advertising is based on potentially offensive generalizations about groups that within themselves are diverse by age, income, educational level, place of residence, time in this country and national origin.

In a score of interviews, advertising and marketing executives selling cars and other consumer products say research supports those generalities and that advertising based on such data works. “If it’s based on cultural stereotypes, it becomes bigotry, racism and all those other nasty things,” Frankel said. “But a recognition of cultural values within a certain ethnicity is at its best the basis for clear communications.”

Unlike typical stereotypes, those generalities usually are based on what’s purported to be sound scientific research, such as a survey of 58,000 households done last year by Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., concluding that minorities are more style conscious than the American majority. Forrester said 15 percent of blacks, 17 percent of Asians and 13 percent of Hispanics said they are influenced by “what’s hot and what’s not,” compared with 8 percent of whites.

Guajardo and others say that Asians as a rule value higher education, entrepreneurship and symbols of achievement such as luxury cars and homes. Wanla Cheng, head of the Manhattan-based Asia Link Consulting Group, whose clients include General Motors, says Asians also tend to be very family oriented. “Children are the centerpiece of Asian families,” she said, adding that Asian families, like Latino families, are more apt to be three-generational, with grandparents an integral part of the unit.

Advertising experts concede, though, that some ads aimed at minorities need to be more finely tuned—by age and income levels, for example.

At least one observer thinks many companies are guilty of treating diverse groups monolithically.

“There is no Hispanic marketplace,” said Ronald Goodstein, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “It’s made up of different subgroups that happen to have the same language and religion.”

Similarly, he criticizes a fast food chain’s recent ad campaign pitched to African-Americans that featured rap music. “It didn’t matter whether the target market was 14- or 40-year-olds,” he said. “If you’re black you listened to rap music.”

He also looks askance at the growing tendency of companies to rely on ad agencies staffed by members of the minority group being targeted on the premise that the agency staffers have a better understanding of the culture in question. “Executives in these agencies are wealthier, more educated, more culturally tuned to what’s going on the world,” said Goodstein. “They no longer represent the majority of the ethnicity in many cases.”

Cheng counters, “Culture is about nuances; it’s very difficult for people outside a culture to understand what those nuances are.”

Some, however, believe the greater fault of automakers and many other American industries is in paying too little attention to emerging minority groups. “The budgets are not that big,” Cheng said, although she concedes they are increasing.

Asians, she says, receive the least attention, even though, she contends, “The majority of Asian-Americans prefer to be communicated to in their own language.” That’s a challenge, she acknowledges, with six major Asian groups in the United States—Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese, each with its own language.

American Honda’s manager of emerging markets advertising, Barbara Ponce, says its focus on family values in targeting Latinos is based on research going back to 1989. “Durability, quality and reliability are top purchase considerations,” she said. Among African-Americans, she says, “Style, image and just overall design attributes are much higher ranking.”

At the same time, she said, Honda pitches its Civic at the urban youth market, whose members span the racial and ethnic horizon and among whom the Civic is a favorite for customizing. She acknowledges the risk of stereotyping and says ads sometimes are rejected for that reason, such as one proposed showing a Latino wearing a sombrero.

But, she says, “Knock on wood, we have not had a problem.”

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