Archive for Marketing & Market Research

Non-Verbal Latino Communication & Social Networking

I have written before about how Latinos prefer to interact at an emotional or spiritual level. Achieving this heightened level of communication means going further than the articulation of words and connecting by relying on information that transcends the spoken language. Is this communication preference limited to Hispanic consumers? Of course not. And it does not apply to all Latinos either; but I am a market researcher, and we are in the business of generalization. My contention is that Hispanics in the U.S. are more likely than non-Hispanic consumers to rely on non-verbal communication and gut feelings in almost every interpersonal encounter. In a prior post I gave some examples of this phenomenon. Here I would like to expand on the subject and explore how this communication style works in the digital world of social networking.

Let’s start by looking into how Hispanics gain this emotional connection. One thing that Latinos overly rely on to gain a better understanding of one another is the use of non-verbal communication cues. The cues include facial expressions, hand and body movement, physical touch, voice pitch, voice sounds (not the articulation of the words), physical appearance, emotional appearance (like teary eyes), and even smell. I did not realize how often I used non-verbal cues to communicate until I started dating a non-Hispanic girl who once asked me why I smacked my lips and made other sounds to convey my feelings, instead of simply expressing them verbally. As I have said in prior articles, Latinos are very emotional creatures; but that does not mean that the emotions are always verbalized. From the loud moaning of a man who who just stubbed his toe, to the exaggerated screams of a mother whose child just took his first step, Latinos excel in the use of sound and facial expressions to convey emotion.

Many of you will know that Latinos are also keen on physical connection. Hugs and kisses are normal in everyday interactions. It is normal for Latino men to greet females with a kiss; even if they do not know each other well. Men also hug each other as a sign of affection. In fact, a very common closing for a business letter in Latino correspondence is “un abrazo” or “a hug.” In interviewing Latinos I sometimes use touch to communicate that I understand and care about what they have to say. Simple gestures like a hand on the shoulder or a handshake are effective. In some instances when a respondent became very emotional I have offered a hug. I don’t know that I have ever used touch in non-Hispanic interviewing. While it may be easy to understand the importance of using physical touch in Latino interactions, you may have more difficulty conceptualizing the role that smell plays in the communication.

Okay, I think we can agree that if a person reeks with body odor, the smell will undoubtedly affect his or her personal interactions! But BO aside, odor is used extensively by Latinos in communicating. Many Hispanics use perfume or cologne to convey their personality; an the smell of a particular brand of perfume becomes a part of who they are. Sometimes the smell is used to convey how much they care about their family. When my daughter Marina came home my mother was at our house with a basket of goodies. Among them was a bottle of “Violet Water,” a cologne that Cubans like to use on babies. My mother explained to my wife (who is not Hispanic) how good it was to use this fragrance because it conveys that you care about your baby. Latinos also use fragrances in other areas to communicate something about them. Colgate Palmolive, for example, has a very successful line of cleaning products called Fabuloso. Most Latinas know that Fabuloso is not a very good cleaner; but they also agree that cleaning is not the main purpose of that product. They buy it because in the Latino culture the smell of products like Fabuloso is extremely important in conveying how a woman takes care of her house and her family. The same holds true for the laundry products they use. The clothing needs to have a particular fragrance. Undoubtedly, the sense of smell is very much a part of the Latino communication process.

Body and hand movement is also extremely important. Many Latinos find it necessary to move their hands in order to communicate effectively. I find myself using hand movements even when I talk on the phone and nobody sees me! I have said many times that if you tie my hands I am unable to speak. Voice pitch and volume is also used extensively among Latinos. This sometimes varies by Latino country of origin. Cubans, for example, are culturally very loud in their communication. In everyday social gatherings Cubans are accustomed to raising their voice to get the group’s attention and are perfectly at ease with all of them talking at the same time. When I moderate focus groups in Miami I have to warn clients about this unique social preference because I need to allow it to happen (to an extend) in order for the communication to flow “normally.”

Given the propensity for Latinos to use non-verbal communication that goes far beyond what can be communicated through text; how do Latinos manage to engage effectively in social networking? The interesting thing is that Hispanics are very fond of social networks like Facebook and MySpace an the Latino communication in those networks is thriving! Why? Because these networks have been successful in digitally emulating non-text communication through the use of photographs, music, recorded voice, video, chat, digital gifts, quizzes, news, status updates, group affiliations, games, personal information, links, and hundreds of add-on applications that often reveal the more personal or emotional side of the user. These “gimmicks” that we reject in business communication are very much a part of what social networking is all about. In some Latino specific networks like MiGente members often set their own color scheme and background music for their profile. All of this contributes to the “personal appearance” of the user and can be compared to the importance of clothing styles or makeup in personal interactions.

Communication on the Internet has moved far beyond the simple emoticons used in text email interactions. Even business networks like LinkedIn can now incorporate visual presentation documents in the member’s profile and applications like Tripit, Amazon reading list, and embedded WordPress blogs (this blog is on my profile). The ways we can now interact online fit very well with the Latino communication preferences. Unfortunately, marketing research has not yet taken full advantage of these new methods of communicating. With the possible exception of some online qualitative research and online research communities that include Facebook style social networks, most of the research that is currently conducted online continues to be static text (read as boring) questionnaires with complicated grids, numeric scales, and unappealing business formatting. This type of research communication, as you can surmise from my writing, does not work very well with Latinos.

Why are we not using visually appealing backgrounds, photographs, sound, and video in online marketing research? In training websites we often see a video of a person who explains what you are looking at on the screen and asks questions. Wouldn’t it be great to have research questionnaires “administered” by a videotaped individual? How about a truly administered survey through a webcam? The technology today even allows us to voice-record open ended responses. When online marketing research catches on with the technology that networks like Facebook use to engage their members, then Latinos will feel more at home in completing an online survey. But in the meantime I may have to continue recommending other methodologies over online for Hispanic research work.

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Latinos Communicate at a Spiritual Level

 There is something peculiar about Latino interactions. Our communication goes much further than what is simply verbalized by the spoken words. We prefer to connect at an emotional, or at what I prefer to call a spiritual level. In my work interviewing Latinos I have witnessed this peculiarity in a consistent basis. Latinos generally feel more comfortable dealing with people when there is an established emotional bond among them. Yes, I know, almost everyone does; but Latinos are different in that they seek this emotional connection in almost every daily interaction. The connection with the person is almost more crucial that the verbal communication itself.

Perhaps my point is best described through examples. Have you ever been to a Latino supermarket or neighborhood store? A large supermarket chain in the northeast hired me once to understand why Latinos shop at what they considered to be low quality stores. “We do not get it,” my client said; “we are loosing customers to a store that is not very clean, is totally disorganized, carries very little variety of merchandise, and is more expensive than ours on almost everything!” I visited the Latino store in question and interviewed many of its customer. Their loyalty to the store had little to do with the merchandise they carried or the price point of the products offered; they shopped there because they felt at ease interacting with the employees. Here is a typical customer comment.

“I like coming here because I can talk to the butcher about his family; and the cashier knows who I am. The employees care about me and I care about them. In other places they try to rush you through the check out and do not care to chit-chat. If I am dealing with people, I like to feel like I know them.”

On another project a large insurance company wanted to understand the importance of having Latino sales representatives. They were of the opinion that the most important aspect in selling their services were the details of the plan and their pricing structure. They had translated their brochure into Spanish and were disappointed in the Hispanic receptivity. In talking to their customers and agents over several focus group interviews I, once again, came across the importance of connecting at an emotional level.

“I do not care to read the details of the plan or for the salesperson to give me a dissertation about the benefits. I prefer to deal with a Latino agent because they are more likely to understand what I want. My current agent knows me and my family well and he cares to ask how we are doing. I trust him personally, so I trust that what he recommends is good for me. A friend at work once convinced me to meet with an agent who had a very structured sales presentation; I did not trust him at all.”

A good friend of mine who is not Latino once told me the story of how his company, a liquor company, went about securing a merger with a Mexican brandy manufacturer. A team from the American company was sent to Mexico to finalize the details of the deal with the owner of the Mexican company. Their task was to convince the Mexican owner of the viability of the deal. They were prepared with all their financial backup, analytical charts, reports, and their laptop computers. They were picked up at the airport by an employee of the Mexican company who took them, to their surprise, to the private residence of the company owner. The were greeted there by the owner, a few employees, and the owner’s family. They ate, drank and shared stories with the Mexican family until someone from the American team asked when they were scheduled to discuss business. At that point the owner of the Mexican company said, “I just needed to know you better, they deal is sealed. You can work out the details with my people in the morning.”

All of these examples point out the importance that Latinos place on communicating using something that goes beyond words and facts. In Latino interactions we pay a lot of attention to how we feel about the person we are communicating with and rely heavily on visual, tactual, and other non-verbal cues. Touching, kissing, hugging, storytelling, tangents, and verbalizing feelings are all important components in Latino interactions. Through our unstructured style of telling stories and going on tangents we get to learn about each other. We seem to unconsciously monitor how the other person reacts and pay close attention to how we feel about those reactions. We use exaggerated non-verbal and verbal expressions to communicate feelings because we know how crucial it is to connect at the emotional level. I find that Hispanics do this even if they are not consciously aware of doing it.

In researching Latinos one has to be keenly aware of how Latinos interact and how they prefer to communicate. Not surprisingly, qualitative research works very well with Latinos because it lends itself to our peculiar communication style. Online research, however, is often problematic- not necessarily because Latinos are not online; but rather because the methodology currently relies on very structured text questionnaires and ignores the other important communication components. In a future posting I’ll touch on how Latinos are bringing their unique communication style to the online world and how it is indeed possible to build online spiritual interactions.

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Let’s stop segmenting people by race!

Photo by Kacey LópezIt is not unusual to use race as a demographic classification in the U.S. Marketing campaigns; government plans; segmentation studies; social programs- everyone pays attention to the race classification! For years, however, I have contended that race is not an appropriate demographic characteristic in the segmentation of population groups for marketing purposes. Maybe it was at one point in time; but our world today is demographically very different from what it was as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are no clear race divisions that correspond to typical group behaviors like there used to be many years ago.

To see my point here it may help us to think about what we mean by race. Race is usually defined by the physical features and characteristics of a group of people. Hundreds of years ago people that shared similar physical characteristics also shared the same social and ethnic makeup and tended to live in the same region of the world. People were not able to travel like they do today and there was hardly any interracial mixing. The colonization of the Americas started to change things a bit; but even in the United States, a country that was formed with a foundation of diversity, there was great social pressure for race segregation. For years people kept themselves divided by race. Things, however, started to get a bit confusing.

As centuries went by the Black African people that were brought in as slaves to Caribbean Islands became an integral part of the population of those islands. In some of these islands, like in Puerto Rico, the Blacks mixed with the Whites (mostly from Spain) and the native Indians resulting in the mixed race characteristics of the Puerto Rican people. Other Caribbean countries, like Jamaica, stayed mostly Black; yet the Blacks there have a completely different culture from Blacks in the United States. The same holds true for other races. Maya and Aztec Indians mixed with Spaniards in Mexico and Central America to form the characteristics we see in the people from those regions.

This is a good time to remember that Hispanic or Latino is not a race. This is a big area of confusion in the U.S. because Hispanic has been listed and often continues to be listed as a race classification in all kinds of government, business, and academic forms. Latinos with predominant Indian physical features in the U.S. do not know how to classify themselves on these forms and see Hispanic as the most obvious classification. In reality, the Hispanic classification was created partly to define this group of people that we were unable to classify otherwise. This is not all necessarily bad. Great historical accomplishments were achieved by Mexicans in Texas who set out to legally prove that they were not really white. Until the U.S. government began to recognize this distinction (by a ruling of the Supreme Court no less!), Mexicans who were accused of a crime in Texas were judged by a jury “of their peers” that did not include any Mexican. But I digress…

The fact remains that Hispanic or Latino is not really a race. When people in the Southwest say that someone looks Hispanic they are probably seeing native Indian features that are common in many Mexican immigrants. Likewise, when people in New York say that someone looks Puerto Rican they are recognizing the typical Puerto Rican race mix characteristics. Now, you would think that it would be appropriate for people from Guatemala who have a rather pure Maya heritage (many do) to say that they are of the Indian race. Not so. For one, saying that you are Indian in Latin America is still considered derogatory; a belief that comes from Spanish colonial times when Indians were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. And more importantly, when any business, government, or academic form lists Indian as a race they mean American Indian; which surprisingly is not seen as inclusive of Aztecs and Mayas (let alone Caribbean or South American Indian natives).

In the United States, anyone with a mix that includes Black is considered Black. I never understood the reasoning behind this but the definition is very well documented. In other countries the definition is a bit different. In the Dominican Republic, for example, it is customary to consider a person White if there is White in their heritage or if the family is mostly of lighter skin. I have met many Dominicans with dark skin who are adamant about classifying themselves as White. In Puerto Rico there is a complete spectrum of skin tones between black and white; yet most Puerto Ricans will say they are White. Who is to judge what the race is when they are mixed races? This becomes worse as people continue to relocate and intermarry. It is becoming so confusing that the census now has a whole battery of questions regarding race mixes and Hispanic ethnic heritages in an effort to include all the options; but what we need to do is to simply give up on this whole race classification nonsense!

From a marketing perspective knowing a segment by their race is of little use. A Black person from Haiti has little in common with a Black person from Atlanta; let alone a Latino Black. To define African American as an American ethnic group (not a race) is valuable. Blacks who share the U.S. American heritage share the same cultural traits and exhibit similar behaviors. In defining African American as an ethnicity, however, I would not include Latino Blacks or newer Black immigrants from other countries. Marketing to Asians as a race is even more ludicrous. They do not even share the same culture or language. Marketing to Asians is only valuable when separated into the specific country segments. BUT… marketing to Hispanics as a whole works! Why? Because Hispanic is NOT a race.

While I will not argue that there are many differences among Latino segments, the fact remains that there are some very strong commonalities. We do (for the most part) share the same language, very similar values when it comes to family, a tendency to be religious or spiritual, a passion for food (even if our foods are different), a Latino wit or sense of humor that is often very different from that of Anglo Americans, a similar immigration experience, an emotional nature, and a unique way of connecting with one another that relies heavily on instincts, emotions, and non-verbal communication. Marketing to the commonalities exhibited by all Latinos does work!

My advice to marketing researchers is to forget about the race because it does not really matter; what we are trying to get at when we segment people by race is their ethnic background. Let’s segment by ethnicity, not by race. And let’s stop believing that we are different because of the color of our skin. The physical features are not what make people different; their attitudes and opinions, which stem from their culture and upbringing, do set them apart.

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Hispanic or Latino?

Today I was asked the question again; do you say Hispanic or Latino? My response is usually quick; I use the terms interchangeably. But the reality is that there is more behind the question; which is why it pops up so often. The term Hispanic as it is used in the United States was introduced to classify a group of people that we had difficulty classifying otherwise. It started appearing in the U.S. census and other government forms in the 1960s and was picked up by researchers as a standard demographic characteristic. Businesses also began to refer to the Latino consumers target as the “Hispanic market.” In contrast, the term Latino has different roots. In Spanish we have always used the term to describe an individual from “Latin America” and it is a commonly used Spanish word worldwide.

I like using the term Hispanic in business because I feel that it more clearly identifies the Latino consumers who live in the United States. In fact, I often say that there are no Hispanics outside of the United States. In Mexico there are Mexicans, in Puerto Rico there are Puerto Ricans, and in Cuba, well… Cubans, you get my drift. But in this country Latin Americans are very often classified as Hispanics. I learned to be Hispanic in the United States!

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