Connecting with U.S. Hispanics

Understanding Hispanic Identity and the Importance of Culturally Relevant Media

by and | May 22, 2000

A multi-national protest in Miami. Photo by Nuri Vallbona.

Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez at the Grammy Awards. Sammy Sosa in another home run race. George W. Bush and Al Gore giving campaign speeches in Spanish. The Taco Bell Chihuahua. The influence of Hispanics can be seen and felt everywhere in the United States. The numbers are extraordinary–according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently 31 million Hispanics in the U.S. Moreover, this group already has an estimated spending power of more than $383 billion. Hispanics are emerging as the single most important cultural and socioeconomic force since the Baby Boomers revolutionized society in post-war America.

Hispanics now have an unprecedented level of influence on the music we listen to, the sports we watch and the food we eat. By the year 2020, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is projected to reach 53 million and its spending power is expected to exceed the $1 trillion. The Latin Wave is here and it is not surprising that everyone–from politicians to educators to business people–is trying to find ways to connect with this group effectively.

Since People en Español‘s launch, we have been dedicated to researching and documenting the Hispanic market. Through this process, we have learned that the keys to connecting successfully with Hispanics in the U.S. are the following:

1) Use good research to understand Hispanic identity and values.
2) Make sure that your message is on target by being culturally relevant–often specifically in Spanish.

3) Reach all Hispanics by using the right media vehicles.

To understand this market further, People en Español has launched the Hispanic Opinion Tracker, or HOT Study. We wanted to know who Hispanics were, how they viewed themselves, what media they consume, what their consumer preferences were and what lifestyle choices they make. The first wave of this annual study was fielded by an independent research vendor from May-August 1999. We constructed the sample design so that it would be representative of all Hispanics in the U.S.–geographically and demographically. We are pleased to share some of the top-line results with you.

Connecting to Hispanic Identity

The key to reaching the U.S. Hispanic is understanding his or her self-identity and values. In order to do that better, we devoted part of the HOT Study to answering these questions. The conclusion: Hispanics are eminently Hispanic across gender, age and ethnic and national background.

Hispanics clearly retain a strong sense of pride in their heritage. In fact, an overwhelming majority considers themselves to be “more Hispanic or Hispanic and American equally”–84% to be exact. Those who assume that the strength of this identity is only prevalent among recent immigrants might be in for a surprise. Even a vast majority of Hispanics that were born and raised in this country feel a strong attachment to their roots, with 68% saying that they feel more Hispanic or Hispanic and American equally.

In terms of nomenclature, we found that 57% of Hispanics in the U.S. prefer to use “Hispanic” or “Hispano/a” as the pan-ethnic term when identifying themselves, with another 8% preferring “Hispanic American.” Only 23% of respondents prefer the term Latino/a. Following the preferences of the majority of Hispanics in the U.S., we have adopted “Hispanic” as the pan-ethnic term throughout our materials.

So how do you best reach these individuals with a unique identity? Connecting with Hispanics is best done through culturally relevant messages–with the right combination of language and culture. Aida Levitan, executive vice president of Sanchez & Levitan, a Miami-based advertising agency, recently said that, “. . . advertisers shouldn’t assume they can win the hearts and pocketbooks of Hispanics with the same messages and techniques they use to the woo the general market. Hispanics are not Anglos who happen to speak Spanish.”

In order for a campaign to be successful in the Hispanic market, it must be culturally relevant.

The Right Message-Cultural Relevance

The success of People en Español has taught us an important lesson about the power of cultural relevance. The magazine was first conceived in 1995 as a Spanish-language version of PEOPLE Weekly, with the majority of articles consisting of PEOPLE articles translated into Spanish–a “PEOPLE in Spanish.”

We soon discovered that in order for the magazine to appeal to the hearts and minds of Hispanics, it would need original editorial content–content that reflects the values and contributions of U.S. Hispanics today. It would have to contain stories about Hispanic stars and profile ordinary Hispanics doing extraordinary things. As the focus changed, it was clear that we would have to become “Hispanic PEOPLE“–a publication reflecting the optimism of U.S. Hispanics and celebrating their culture.

Perhaps the principal function of cultural relevancy is language–specifically, Spanish. English-language media options outnumber Spanish ones more than 10 to 1 in the United States, and yet 95% of Hispanics consume some form of Spanish-language media–be it print, television or radio. This phenomenon demonstrates that Hispanics actively seek out Spanish-language media. And this does not just apply to editorial content, the HOT Study shows that 64% of Hispanics prefer advertising in Spanish as well.

Seeking out Spanish-language media is not merely a function of comprehension for Hispanics. The HOT Study shows that a majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are effectively bilingual–85% speak English at work while 87% speak Spanish at home. In fact, a majority of Hispanics can and do consume English media on a regular basis. This means that Hispanics are gravitating towards Spanish-language media for reasons beyond comprehensibility–they are consuming Spanish-language media because it is more relevant to their identity and lives as Hispanics.

Our public relations intern at People en Español, Karla Martinez, is a vivid example of the importance of cultural relevance. Currently a student at Columbia University, she is perfectly fluent in both Spanish and English. Karla rushes home each night to watch her telenovelas (extremely popular Spanish-language soap operas); yet she does not watch English-language soap operas. When you ask Karla why she prefers Spanish-language to English-language soaps, she will tell you that the English-language soaps “just don’t speak to me. The novelas are about things that are closer to my family and my culture.” Thus cultural relevance drives media consumption for the U.S. Hispanic.

So cultural relevance requires more than just producing content in Spanish. Priscila Aviles, Vice President and Creative Director for Leo Burnett’s Hispanic unit, says that many corporations have made the mistake of translating English-language campaigns that were successful in the general market into Spanish for test audiences. These efforts, however, rarely connect. Ms. Aviles stresses that companies were “reaching [Hispanics] with something that was adapted, but you’re not talking to their heart. . . It is not a language barrier. It is a cultural and lifestyle barrier.”

Besides the Spanish language, what is culturally relevant? Well, according to HOT, it is family. The strength of family and community bonds reinforce attachment to Hispanic culture. Seventy-five percent of Hispanics marry other Hispanics and 63% say that their five best friends are also Hispanic. In addition, when asked what they would do with two extra hours in the day, 55% would want to spend it with their families. This is in stark contrast to the “me” generation of Baby Boomers who often say that their children interfere with leisure time. Politicians should note that Hispanics’ top five social concerns–education, crime, health care, jobs and the economy, and social security–are all family-centered. Education is about my family’s future; crime is about keeping my family safe; health care about preserving my family’s well-being; jobs about keeping my family fed; and social security about ensuring my family’s future financial stability.

Reach Hispanics Through A Mix of Media

One of the most important findings of the HOT Study is that U.S. Hispanics read magazines and other print vehicles with regularity. The HOT Study, the first to analyze and document Hispanic readership of both Spanish and English-language magazines, shows that 78% of Hispanics read magazines in Spanish, while 83% read them in English. These readership levels are roughly equivalent to magazine consumption levels in the general market.

Moreover, HOT demonstrates that–similar to trends in the general market–Hispanics who read magazines frequently are more likely to be better educated and more affluent than the average Hispanic consumer. Not surprisingly, this trend affects numerous other consumer and lifestyle behaviors. For example, Hispanic magazine readers are much more likely to have Internet access, buy a new car, and own mutual funds. HOT shows that companies which hope to reach Hispanics with premium products such as these will have greater success if they utilize the print medium.


At 31 million strong, Hispanics have already established themselves as a social, cultural, political and economic force. They are embarking on a key life-stage: establishing careers, having families, buying homes and making large scale purchases.

Those who will most effectively reach this community will acknowledge the Hispanic identity and be culturally relevant–and they will often do it in Spanish. Ultimately, it is essential that all Hispanics get the message–employ a variety of media vehicles and reach the whole market, not just a fraction of it.

More significantly, those who want to make that emotional connection will invest time in acquiring strong, viable research, as we have done at People en Español. Projects such as the HOT Study will be an invaluable tool to our magazine and our marketing partners by providing insight and information on a variety of topics and categories.

As the next millennium approaches, it is undeniable that the Hispanic consumer market will play a crucial role in the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the United States in the years to come. It will be a lost opportunity to those who do not catch the Latin wave now.

Spring 2000

Liza Quiroz, (’83, HBS ’90) is the publisher of People en Español. She serves on the board of directors of the Hispanic Federation of New York and was the 1997 recipient of the ¡Si, Se Puede! Award from the National Puerto Rican Forum in honor of her business achievements in the Hispanic print market. Roan Kang (’96) is the research manager at People en Español.

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