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Understanding the primal U.S.-Latino culture through Latinacculturation

Article ID:
August 2014, page 46
Erwin Chang

Article Abstract

Novamex’s marketing research manager explains how and why the food marketer and distributor changed its view of the acculturation process.

Editor's note: Erwin Chang is the marketing research manager at Novamex, El Paso, Texas.

Based in El Paso, Texas, Novamex is a major distributor of Hispanic foods and beverages in the U.S. and other countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Its product portfolio includes Jarritos soft-drinks, D’Gari gelatin, Ibarra chocolate, Zuko drink mix and various other Mexican and Hispanic brands.

After conducting and analyzing multiple studies in the CPG category with different Mexican brands in the His-panic market within the U.S., it was clear that the various acculturation formulas we were using in our primary re-search were not providing the company enough depth to analyze our data. Therefore, it was decided to see ac-culturation in the Hispanic market from a different perspective.

Many of the articles and papers on acculturation in the Hispanic market address how Hispanic immigrants change their consumption patterns once they arrive to the U.S. However, they fail to portray the actual route that unacculturated Hispanics take before consuming U.S. mainstream products and services. Rather, those articles and papers follow the traditional acculturation model that indicates that immigrants begin to use U.S. mainstream brands little by little from the time they arrive to this country.

This article challenges this traditional acculturation model and presents evidence that Hispanic immigrants do not move from their native culture, including their purchasing patterns, to the U.S. core culture in a straight line. It provides an alternative model that explains the consumption patterns of unacculturated Hispanics.

First, let us share a story of how the low-acculturation process actually develops.

Pepe has just moved from South America to Los Angeles, where he plans to establish himself, as he has a couple of relatives living there who arrived two decades earlier. They will help Pepe settle down by providing shelter and food for some time. Nonetheless, he knows that he has to start looking for a job very soon, not only because he wants to be independent but also because he needs to send money back to his family.

He has noticed that his relatives in Los Angeles have changed somewhat. But it is not that they are more “American,” as his relatives still do not speak English fluently after 20 years of living in the U.S. In fact, they do not watch much TV in English nor do they have many English-speaking friends. When they need help in completing English forms or following English instructions, their children are their translators.

His relatives have changed in a different way. They use different words that are not familiar to Pepe. Now cuadras becomes bloques and looking for jale means looking for trabajo. But the changes go beyond a few words. Now his relatives have introduced Pepe to tortillas de maíz, carnitas and Jarritos soft drinks. Furthermore, Pepe finds music from Alejandro Fernandez on the iPod of one of his relatives.

After meeting his relatives’ friends and other people in the neighborhood, Pepe notices that even though they are very proud of their different countries of origin, they talk and behave in similar ways, regardless of their nationality. Pepe is very proud of his original culture and he thinks that he would never give up the way he is and how he behaves. Nonetheless, Pepe is already relying on his relatives to decide which detergent to buy and which restaurant to visit.

Pepe is quickly getting immersed into a new culture and it is not the U.S. mainstream. His future descendants are the ones who will connect to the U.S. mainstream culture but keep their Latino heritage strong as well (espe-cially if Pepe marries a Latino person).

Keeps his origins intact

At this moment Pepe and his relatives are different; however, they are still considered low-acculturated Hispanics under the traditional acculturation model used in market research. Pepe keeps his origins intact and has a path of several years to walk before he becomes acculturated to any culture/subculture in the U.S. Nonetheless, his relatives are already quite acculturated – not to the mainstream U.S. culture, as they do not use much English for their everyday activities, but to the local Spanish-language-dominant Hispanic society or primal U.S.-Latino society, as we call it.

The primal U.S.-Latino culture is the one of Pepe’s relatives and their friends. They have their own vocabulary and cuisine, which come from the influence of various groups, especially the Mexican culture, in the case of Los Angeles. This primal U.S.-Latino culture is not a mix of the immigrants’ culture and the U.S. mainstream culture but one with unique characteristics that has been crafted over decades.

Another key characteristic is that the primal U.S.-Latino culture is regional or local. It is not the same all over the United States and differs widely enough that Latinos from one region are unaware of food, slang and even music from another region.

But most important for marketers, the primal U.S.-Latino culture works as a reference group for newcomers, making it the most appealing target for companies that want to conquer the low-acculturated Hispanic market. In Pepe’s case, for example, the U.S. mainstream culture has little influence on his decisions when purchasing new products. Instead, he asks his relatives for advice.

In our view, the process of embracing the primal U.S.-Latino culture by Hispanic immigrants is called Latinac-culturation (Figure 1). Although Pepe will insist on keeping his original culture unbroken, different factors, including solitude; unfamiliarity with local practices; the need to belong to a group; curiosity; and language barriers, among others, will force him to adopt the primal U.S.-Latino culture to some degree.

Backed by data

This process of Latinacculturation is backed by data. For example, as shown in Figure 2, Hispanics like Pepe’s relatives are more likely to purchase Jarritos soda, which is a Mexican brand not consumed in other Hispanic countries, if they are integrated to the primal U.S.-Latino culture in Los Angeles than if they live in other U.S. areas (11.2 percent1 of non-Mexican Hispanic immigrants in L.A. consume Jarritos vs. a 5.3 percent1 national average for the same period). Pepe’s relatives, who never saw Jarritos before moving to the U.S., embraced the primal U.S.-Latino culture by adopting new brands like Jarritos but not brands like Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper.

This pattern with Jarritos is repeated multiple times with many other brands: the chances of non-Mexican His-panic immigrants being a Sabrita (another Mexican brand) consumer are more than twice as high if they live in Los Angeles (11 percent1) than if they live in any part of the U.S. (4.7 percent1). And the list goes on.

But the primal U.S.-Latino culture in Los Angeles is not the Mexican culture either. Did you know that the chances of drinking Jarritos increase over the years among Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles? For instance, in 2009 only one out of 10 Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles who arrived to the U.S. between 2005 and 2009 drank Jarritos, while four years later the percentage of Jarritos consumers doubled to 22.8 percent among members of the same group. Mexican immigrants who are not yet Latinacculturated have less than half the chance to be a Jarritos drinker than a Latinacculturated Mexican immigrant in Los Angeles.

Furthermore, those from Mexico are more likely to consume Jarritos if they live in Los Angeles than if they live somewhere else in the United States (22.8 percent of Mexican immigrants in L.A. vs. 7.6 percent of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.).

It is important to highlight that only 0.3 percent1 of non-Hispanics in L.A. consume Jarritos. This means that Pepe’s relatives assimilated into the primal U.S.-Latino culture in Los Angeles and not the U.S. mainstream by drinking Jarritos.

Led us to choose

Discovering that not all unacculturated Hispanic immigrants are the same led us to choose one of the groups we found in this segment. Taking into consideration that Latinacculturated Hispanics comprise a larger group and are more influential, our current research targets them.
In addition, since many of the products that Novamex distributes in the U.S. are Mexican brands that are not well-known in other parts of Latin America, it was decided that our qualification sample for studies with Hispanic immigrants would include, besides Mexican participants, non-Mexican Hispanics if they were Latinacculturated only. This way we can measure marketing efforts in a more accurate model.

In our surveys one of the most important implications is that our screeners have changed. For instance, we use a question regarding the length of time that the immigrants have been living in the U.S. to filter non-Latinacculturated Hispanics. If immigrants have been living in the U.S. less than five years, they are automatically terminated, as probably many of them are still experiencing some degree of culture shock.

Latinacculturation is key

In our view, Latinacculturation is key to understanding different Hispanic groups in the U.S. To study unacculturated Hispanics and mix in the same bag (or same sample) those who are not Latinacculturated with those who are Latinacculturated can be misleading, as their consumption patterns and behaviors are different. When we are seeking insights to develop an advertising campaign or a new package design, for example, just a few screener questions can make all the difference.

1 Sources: Simmons OneView NHCS Adult study 12-month (U.S.), spring 2013, Los Angeles (Local) and Los Angeles (Local) spring 2009. Percentage of people who consume a product is measured as brand consumed/used “most often.”

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