The Wonderful and Lucrative Enigma of the Hispanic Teens

30 Apr 2006|Added Value

In recent years, a number of companies have tried to understand, segment and target the Hispanic teen market. With market competition in traditional teen categories reaching a fever pitch, marketers are looking to alternative market segments for growth. It is no secret that the Hispanic market as a whole is a fertile ground for any marketer who takes the time to properly target it. Hispanic teens, however, represent an even more significant opportunity.

Demographically, Hispanic teens are a force to be reckoned with and will only increase in size and purchasing power. Hispanics under the age of 20 account for more than 38% of the total Hispanic population in the US.

Any marketer who has delved into the teen market can attest that teenagers in general are a difficult target to gauge. Trying to discern fads from trends from cycles can send anybody’s head spinning. However, the lure of any youth market is its future value. Capture them now, create a bond with your brand, remain relevant to the market as they pass through different lifestages and watch your brand grow right along with them. Throw in some social ambiguity, political awakening, language of preference issues and burgeoning cultural pride and you have both the opportunity and the challenge of the Hispanic teen market.

What’s Different?
Given the myriad issues to understand and overcome, the question that almost every marketer who has an interest in marketing to Hispanic teens has been asking is: Why should I do anything different for Hispanic teens? They mostly speak and watch TV in English. Why couldn’t I just assume that they are being reached through my general market campaign?

This is a very valid question and one that, until recently, had no real answer. Researchers that have analyzed this market in depth have been unable to provide a true answer to those companies that are looking to develop relevant campaigns. A dressed up regurgitation of census data, or reporting of well-known demographic tidbits have been insufficient to give true strategic guidance to navigate such precarious, but potentially lucrative market. The key may lie in throwing out the psychographic and social paradigm that marketers, ad agencies and researchers alike have been trying to fit Hispanic teens into. A number of recent marketing efforts targeting this segment have provided some fresh insight into just exactly who Hispanic teens are.

For starters, Hispanic teens should be considered a free-standing, separate and distinct market from the at-large US-Hispanic market. Hispanic teens in the US are attitudinally different. Most speak their own brand of Spanish (Spanglish), and are US-born. They should not be lumped together with an at-large US Hispanic market that is traditionally defined as being Spanish-dominant, foreign-born and very well defined from a cultural standpoint.

Does this mean that decades of findings from the US Hispanic market should be ignored when it comes to Hispanic teens? Of course not, there are obvious crossovers and cultural insights that are not only relevant, but crucial to understanding this segment. What it does mean is that capturing the Hispanic teen market will require a fresh and innovative approach that relies on a new strategic tack and not on a forced cultural model.

The Boomerang of Retro-Acculturation
All of this could imply that Hispanic teens are a more mainstream, acculturated version of traditional Hispanics. That, however, is not the case. At work is a phenomenon that until recently had been unnoticed or at the very least unaccounted for: The Boomerang of Retro-acculturation.

Acculturation is the process by which an individual originating from one culture adapts into another culture and begins to incorporate its values into his own. This process is less complicated with foreign-born Hispanic adults because adults generally arrive with certain established social and cultural values which they then seek to 1) modify in order to accommodate their new life or 2) entirely suppress in order to mainstream themselves into the US culture. These values are shaped by their country of origin and by traditions that often go back many generations.

US-Hispanic teens, however, are an entirely different story. They are usually born into or raised in a home that has undergone at least partial acculturation. The values that are instilled in them are often diluted versions of what their parents brought with them. This, as well as traditional issues that are common to all teens, cause a cultural and social ambiguity among younger teens and a point of definition among older teens.

While US-Hispanic adults acculturation is most often based on the time they have spent living in the United States, the level of acculturation of US-Hispanic teens is based on age. When foreign-born adults arrive in the US their values are obviously shaped by the culture in their country of origin. As time passes, they begin to modify their values in order to become a part of the mainstream US culture. This is why we see a desire to shun the language and other traditionally Hispanic culturally defining factors.

This is essentially what happens to US-born Hispanics between the ages of 12 and 16. When they are young these kids are raised by parents who are more often than not Spanish-dominant and who, although socially more mainstreamed, try to keep their culture alive within the confines of their homes. When these kids begin to reach an age in which they themselves are judged according to their position within their peer group, a conflict begins. On the one hand they have been raised as Hispanics, on the other hand being Hispanic may not necessarily be advantageous in their current context. If not, they may suppress their relationship to Hispanic culture.

A Demographic Awakening
Most US-Hispanic teens begin the process of defining themselves culturally by the age of 16. At this age a burgeoning cultural pride begins to take hold and these teens begin the process of retro-acculturation.

Recently, researchers have noticed that retro-acculturation is beginning at an earlier age than in the past. Across a number of categories, kids as young as 11 express a strong desire to learn more about their culture and the traditions that go along with it.
Although it is much too early to tell, some researchers believe that this is due to two main factors:

1.Hispanic teens are undergoing a demographic awakening. They are becoming more aware of their number within their communities and across the US. They are better educated and more informed than their parents and realize their enormous purchasing power.

2.Being part of an ethnic group is “in.” In examining trends over the past five years, researchers have discovered that within most of the urban centers across the US, it is ethnic teens who set the trends.

Reaching Hispanic Teens
With such an enigmatic and potentially lucrative market segment, the question is: How do you reach them?

For years now, Hispanic advertising agencies have tried to come up with marketing communications that reach this segment. This is especially difficult in this case because you have a teen segment basically divided into two very different groups. On the one hand you have younger Hispanic teens (13-16), who are culturally ambiguous. It is hard for them to decide if they want to be Hispanic or not, let alone what form of communication or execution they find most relevant or appealing. On the other hand you have the older teens (16-19), who are beginning to define themselves culturally and for whom being authentic and “legit” is crucial to their social standing.

So how do you develop culturally relevant marketing communications and materials for both of these groups?
The answer may lie in making concessions and redefining the Hispanic teen market. In looking the younger Hispanic teen segment, marketers and ad agencies may have to acknowledge that younger Hispanic teens (13-16) can more effectively be reached through mainstream, English-language media.

This, however, is only half of the answer. In looking at the older Hispanic teen segment, marketer and agencies should consider including raising the age limit from 19 to 22. This not only makes sense from a fiscal standpoint, but also from a cultural one.

Hispanic young adults are perhaps the most culturally aware and sensitive of all Hispanic segments. They are what the Hispanic teens are striving to be and are whom the teens are looking to as role models. Older sisters, brothers, cousins and uncles are invariably brought up when teens are asked about people they admire and wish to emulate.

Looking at the median age of the Hispanic market (28), at the projected purchasing power of Hispanics as a whole, and at their demographic presence, it is not difficult to realize the promise this market holds. One thing is certain, it will be only those companies willing to take a fresh approach and willing to challenge some of the established boundaries who in the end will truly benefit.

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