Doing marketing research with Latinos in Latin America vs. Hispanics in the U.S

09 Jan 2008|Added Value

Often people may think that conducting marketing research in Latin America is the same as doing research with Hispanics in the U.S., but after experiencing both, I can say that the greatest similarity is the Spanish language that I use to moderate the groups. However, even this is not always true because with English Dominant Hispanics in the U.S. I have to moderate in English, or with Bicultural Hispanics I often have to switch from Spanish to English during the focus group or interview. Nevertheless, it has been interesting to have both experiences and for that reason I decided to share my thoughts, as there is much that can be learned by comparing and contrasting both experiences.

Acculturation levels vs. socio-economic levels:
First of all, in Latin America we do not talk about acculturation levels – everybody is acculturated, relatively speaking. Instead we more often segment by socio-economic levels, and depending on the country there are different denominations (e.g. in Mexico we talk about levels A, B, C and D, where A is the highest level and D the lowest socio-economic level, whereas in Colombia we talk about levels 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1, where 6 is the highest level). Whatever we call the socio-economic level, in general we refer to higher income, medium income and lower income. To make it clearer socio-economic level refers to a combination of household income, education (level of education and schools that people attend), area of the city where they live and social environment (e.g. access to a social club, restaurants or bars people usually visit). In fact, determining a socio-economic level sometimes could be subjective.

In the research industry in Latin America most of the projects conducted involve medium income respondents who make up the majority of the population. Higher income is a minority that is only included if there is a brand that specifically targets this segment. Lower income is rarely included not only because their purchasing power is very limited but also because this segment’s educational level is very low and as a result these respondents have high articulation barriers.

A couple of times while conducting projects in Latin America, lower income respondents were included in the scope of my projects, when we were testing products/ brands that specifically targeted this segment, and I have to admit that those groups were very tough to moderate because these respondents have more difficulty verbalizing concepts or talking about emotions or meanings. Because of this, including this segment in concept tests or advertising tests is not recommended in Latin America.

This has been the biggest difference since I moved to the U.S. and started doing research with Hispanics. Here in the US it is very common to include participants who in their home country would belong to lowest income segments, but whom I would rarely include in research projects in Latin America – primarily due to a lower educational level, and different purchasing power, which I will describe further. This does not mean research is not conducted properly in the U.S.; it is just reflective of the composition of the un-acculturated Hispanic market in this country. Companies in the U.S. have to target their products and research to this group of Hispanics, which is very different than the group that companies in Latin America target.

The challenge comes in gathering useful insights from this segment. It is often the case that this group of Hispanics is very literal and has difficulty expressing their feelings, emotions and associations toward a product or a brand. Therefore, very abstract approaches to research do not work very well with them (e.g. some projective exercises need to be modified – not meaning that they do not work well) They have excellent ideas to share, and needs that any company would like to fill, but creative approaches are necessary to gather useful insights. There is a combination of lower education and cultural differences, , which requests different research approaches in order to get useful and deep insights.

Not all techniques used in research with general market consumers in the U.S. can be applied to Hispanics. There are approaches that work very well with highly educated Americans that will not work with un-acculturated Hispanics, who tend to be less educated. For example, a few years ago I was participating in a packaging redesign project that included interviews with General Market and Hispanics. We were not testing options for new packages; we were only testing concepts to include in the new package. Unlike with General Market respondents, it was challenging to get much information from the Hispanic respondents because of the difficulty they had imagining concepts that would be included in a package rather than actual package options (similar to what they find at the store).

To overcome this I suggest using a completely different approach, or testing more concrete concepts, waiting until several package options are developed, which can be tested among this group. Something what works very well is to ask respondents to draw the product packaging being tested because it helps highlight which elements are relevant to respondents and which ones could be eliminated. After getting that information, explore each of those elements and give the participants options to modify each of them. In addition, try to include a Hispanic moderator because they project a different dynamic than a Spanish-speaking non-Hispanic moderator. Respondents will feel less intimidated, more comfortable and will bond with somebody that also comes from Latin America.

Purchasing power:
The second difference I found in doing research here in the U.S., related to why in the U.S. we include participants that we usually do not include in Latin America, is that this segment is living under different circumstances than they would in their country of origin. Most un-acculturated Hispanics are people who moved to this country to pursue a better life, and in one way or another they have achieved it. I cannot affirm that Hispanics do not have financial problems here in the U.S., but from my perspective and in contrast to the same economic segment in Latin America, here they can afford things that they would never be able to afford in their home countries.

In Latin America these consumers would not have the same purchasing power as they have in the U.S. nor would they think about sending money to their families. This new purchasing power is precisely what makes un-acculturated Hispanics an attractive segment in the U.S.. Over the last few years I’ve heard people tell me that before moving to the U.S. they would never have thought about having a car, and now they own a brand new and very nice car. Other people mentioned that in Mexico they used to shop daily for groceries at a “plaza”, and now in the U.S. they have the option to visit a supermarket or even a wholesale store. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that brands that we see very common here in the U.S. where unattainable for Hispanic before moving to this country because it was so expensive – or there are brands that here in are very common but do not exist in Latin America. For example, Gap is perceived in Latin America as an aspirational brand that only people with higher incomes can afford while here in the U.S. Hispanics easily can afford Gap merchandise. On the other hand, Swiffer is an ordinary brand in the U.S. whereas in Latin America it is not known.

That said, it is not only about understanding behaviors, or convincing Hispanics to try a product; it is also about educating them about the system and introducing categories they have never been exposed to. For this reason, when moderating groups or conducting interviews with Hispanics it is even more important not to assume anything. Sometimes Hispanics are not familiar with a product or a brand because they did not have access to it before moving to the U.S. Therefore, try to spend some time understanding how the products or categories you are testing differ compared to those in their home countries. There are more emotions behind this than you could imagine.

Hispanics vs. people from different countries and cities:
The third difference that I have found is that here in the U.S. Hispanics are often perceived as one big group. In contrast, in Latin America the same people are segmented not only by country of origin but also by city of origin, and even more by socio-economic level. That said, there are huge differences between countries and even more between cities inside countries. If I was doing a local project in Colombia, I would never generalize the results for Colombians. Instead, I would talk about differences among cities. The same thing applies if I was doing a regional project; rather than talking about Latin Americans I would state differences among countries. However, here in the U.S. people that come from Latin America are often mistakenly perceived as a homogenous group that shares the same culture and language, and for that reason they all are grouped or tagged as Hispanics.

From a research perspective it might seem to make a lot of sense to group a minority with certain commonalities under the Hispanic umbrella. It can be very expensive and challenging to segment participants in projects by countries and cities of origin. Instead, projects are usually segmented by acculturation levels and (if the budget allows it) by city where they currently live (Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Miami, New York, etc.). However, country of origin should not be overlooked or minimized and it’s often suggested to associate it with different cities (i.e. more Mexicans in Los Angeles vs. Cubans in Miami and Puerto Ricans in NY, etc.). Depending on the project, try to include more than one city, always keeping in mind that the majority of Hispanics are from Mexico, therefore Los Angeles and Houston are good markets when the client has a limited budget. If there is a bigger budget allocated, New York is an interesting market to include in order to get opinions from Puerto Ricans or South Americans.

In summary, three big areas that are different when doing research with Latinos is Latin America compared with Hispanics in the U.S. are:
– Many Hispanics respondents come from low socio-economic level in Latin America, which means that their educational level is very low. In Latin America this segment is rarely included in research projects because of their limited purchasing power and their difficulty to articulate ideas. However, here it turns out being an interesting segment because they are a majority and have a strong purchasing power – consequently try to be more creative and avoid overly conceptual approaches.
– The Hispanic segment that we include in research projects in the U.S. is living under different circumstances than they would in their country of origin. Brands that we see as ordinary may have been aspirational or unknown before moving here – therefore do not assume anything.
– In Latin America projects are segmented by city whereas here Hispanics are often perceived as a big group while in reality there are big differences based upon country of origin – that said acknowledge the importance of segmenting by country of origin, which is doable when more than one market in included in the project (e.g. Los Angeles and New York).

There are of course many more differences between doing research in the U.S. versus in Latin America, but these are the ones that have really changed my understanding of marketing research with Hispanics in this country. These are areas that are crucial to keep in mind when doing research in the U.S. in order to design better methodologies and approaches which will certainly help when doing the analysis of the results.

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