As Republicans carry on about using immigration reform as their "way in" with Latinos, I am reminded of a friend's story on the subject of connecting with "the Latino community."
In his younger days, he ran deliveries for a beer distributor. His boss really wanted to crack the Latino market, and he was trying hard to figure out what beers Latinos buy.
So one day, while at a deli chatting with the guy behind the counter, and, figuring the clerk would know as well as anyone, my friend rattled off a list of Mexican and South American imports and asked the clerk which ones his Latino customers preferred.
The guy shook his head and said, "None of those. They drink Bud."
Behold! The U.S. marketer's Latino dilemma in a nutshell: When it comes to reaching Latinos, U.S. marketers are being severely hampered by a set of very false assumptions.
The Latino market is growing -- exploding, actually -- in the United States. Latinos make up almost 17 percent of the total U.S. population, which is already a not insignificant number...but in some regions and cities, those numbers are more like 40, 50 or even 60 percent or more (¡Bienvenidos á Lawrence, Massachusetts!).
But many U.S. companies are leaving Latinos -- and the brand-embracing, loyalty-building and money-making opportunities they represent -- not only underserved but out in the cold.
I believe the reasons U.S. marketers are failing to properly tap the burgeoning Latino market can be attributed to three major myths, and I'd like to dispel those myths once and for all.
MYTH #1: Latinos Lack Purchasing Power
Wrong. Research shows that Latino purchasing power is growing exponentially in all regions of the country. In fact, Latino purchasing power is expected to be $1.5 trillion by 2015 -- that's nearly 11 percent of the nation's total buying power.
What's more, Latinos love to spend on their families -- gift giving is a huge part of the Latino culture, and the calendar is loaded with buying opportunities. For every Sweet Sixteen celebrated in "mainstream" culture, Latinos can answer with a Quinceañera of their own.
MYTH #2: Latinos Are Out of Step With the Technological Times
This fallacy most likely stems from the fact that a lot of Latino communities are concentrated in areas that lack significant broadband penetration, so marketers just assume that Latinos are unplugged and off the communications grid.
The reality is that U.S. Latinos are some of the most eager adopters and users of technology - but it's usually the kind you can put in your pocket. Whereas city dwellers do the bulk of their research, purchasing and even socializing on laptops and tablets, many Latinos do in fact lack access to broadband... so they do everything on their smartphones.
In fact, recent research suggests that more than 75 percent of Latinos access the Internet through their mobile devices, compared to 73 percent of African-Americans and only 60 percent of whites.
MYTH #3: Reaching Latinos Requires a Big Investment in Spanish-Language Media
This would possibly be true if the only Latinos marketers were trying to connect with were "first generationals." But whereas abuela (grandmother) might speak primarily Spanish, her daughter is probably equally conversant in Spanish and English, and her grandson speaks primarily English but is also comfortable with Spanish. The days of America as a melting pot -- where all immigrants assimilate into one undifferentiated mono-culture -- are gone. Today's immigrants are able to overlay one culture on top of another and move between them fluidly.
Add to this the fact that Latinos tend to be very family oriented, and a very appealing scenario unfolds: messages communicated in English to the younger generations on a Thursday will percolate through to the other generations in a hurry -- quite likely by that next Sunday's family get-together. This is the kind of word-of-mouth credibility that most marketers bang their heads on radiators to try to come up with for clients.
Also, by at least the second generation, many Latinos are eager to actively participate in the larger U.S. culture -- Exhibit A being that six pack of Bud. So they're more than open to messages that make them feel like a part of society as a whole. These folks are poised to be the kind of committed brand advocates companies covet.
The truth is this: the Latino market is composed of intellectually engaged, emotionally motivated and increasingly educated individuals. It's not only here to stay, its importance is growing by the day, possibly by the hour. Marketers can continue to view Latinos as outsiders, but if they do, at some point they will find that they're the ones on the outside looking in.
Lizelda Lopez is a Vice President at Ogilvy Public Relations and heads the West Coast Latino outreach specialty. She was born and raised in Tijuana, Mexico and received a Master in Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.