Interview: Cristina Benitez
For two decades, Cristina Benitez has developed a wide range of branding and marketing programs targeting the fast-growing Latino population in the United States. In 1998, she founded Lazos Latinos, a specialty Hispanic strategic branding and advertising company based in Chicago.
The agency's mission is to build leadership brands by "embracing, understanding and respecting the Latino consumer." Its clients include Harris Trust and Savings Bank, Rush University Medical Center, Roche Pharmaceuticals, St. Anthony Hospital, ATS Services, Fonotiendas Facilitel, Del Monte Foods, The International Latino Cultural Center, Formula Latina Professional Hair Care and LaSalle Bank.
Benitez was formerly senior vice president of ethnic marketing at DraftWorldwide, where she directed Hispanic direct marketing campaigns for Sprint, AARP, PacifiCare, HFC and Miracle-Ear. While at Draft, she spearheaded Dimension Draft, the agency’s nationally recognized study on Hispanics and direct marketing.
Benitez's prior Hispanic advertising experience was in New York at FOVA, Grey Advertising’s Hispanic marketing group, where she served as vice president, account services, responsible for such clients as Procter & Gamble, Post Cereals, The Dannon Company, Domino’s Pizza, Quaker State and SmithKline Beecham.
The bilingual Florida native spent eight years teaching Spanish at the secondary and college levels. She has traveled extensively and lived in several Latin American markets, including Cuba, Mexico, and Central and South America. She attended the University of Georgia and received her undergraduate and masters degrees from Furman University.
Benitez is a frequent speaker at national conferences on trends in the U.S. Hispanic Market and a member of many boards and organizations. She is currently writing her first book on "Latinization…Insights into Latino Values."
Q. How big is the U.S. Latino market and how fast is it growing?
A. Latinos make up the largest ethnicity and account for nearly 45 million people in the U.S. We are also the fastest growing group from 2004 to 2005, with a 3.3 percent increase. Keep in mind this number doesn’t include those Latino immigrants not included in the Census, but we all buy cereal, soft drinks and cheese!
Overall immigrants living in American households rose 16 percent over the last five years, fueled largely by recent arrivals from Mexico. The biggest news in all of this is that the Latino population will continue to grow because of Latino births. Latino families have more children – the birth rate for Hispanic women is 3.0 while the non-Hispanic white population is 1.8. The numbers tell us that even if immigration stopped today, the Hispanic population boom would not end for at least another generation.
Q. What, roughly is the division between native-born Latinos and immigrants?
A. There are roughly 73 percent foreign born. This is important because being a new arrival creates many opportunities for companies to introduce their products to an ever-increasing population.
Q. What about assimilation? Are Latinos assimilating in the same way and at the same rate that other immigrant groups have in the past?
A. There is not the same need to assimilate as there was 10 years ago. What we are seeing is an acculturation pattern, where the immigrant adopts many of the behaviors and styles of a new life in the United States, but retains much more of her values and traditions than in the past. We are also seeing the Latinization of the United States, where there rest of the U.S. is starting to embrace more “Latino-flavored” experiences, from food, music, sports, fashion to values.
Q. What are the implications of this enormous growth in flavors, tastes, products, packaging and the like?
A. We are seeing the use of more picante or spicy flavored foods. There is more use of cheese -- queso blanco -- white cheese from the Mexican cuisine. Tropical flavors and fusion cooking are chic and crossing into the mainstream. Some packaging is bilingual and uses colors typically associated with a Latino palette. We are hearing cross-over music from Shakira and we're dancing the merengue, salsa and reggeaeton!
Q. What about marketing and advertising? Apart from language, what mediums and messages work best with Latinos?
A. A personal relationship is the best way to reach Latinos. Apart from the Spanish language, we are seeing more bilingual ads (Toyota) and companies using Spanglish. Online marketing and events and other grassroots efforts provide that one-on-one communication.
Q. Will bilingual packaging continue to grow?
A. Yes, I think it will. But it is tricky not to have too much copy on your packaging. Good copywriting is not translation. That is why you need a Latino advertising company that has professional writers to create your communication. This will say much more to your Latina consumer than taking a label and translating it into Spanish.
Q. You talk about the "Latinization" of the U.S. Are America's ethnic and lifestyle cultures blending together or diverging?
A. Latinization is a movement. It is a force – a series of Latino values and trends that affect how we view the world. It isn’t any one particular or isolated event, but rather a combination of influences born from the twenty-two different Spanish-speaking countries that are homelands to the Hispanic people in the United States. Latinization fuses the Latino influences into the North American lifestyle enriching both cultures simultaneously. As Latinos integrate into the United States and adopt new ways of living, the U.S. is embracing a variety of Latino values, styles and language.
Over the past 20 years I have watched the acceptance of Latino style and culture. When I was a young child (okay, it was much more than 20 years ago!), if I said my last name, Benitez, I would get a blank stare. How to spell it and how to pronounce it, left people in the dark. Today, nearly every place I go, if the person I am interacting with is not Latino, they are not totally unfamiliar with the name. But that is a small personal example.
This month we are seeing the baseball season starting to wind down and head to the World Series -- 46 percent of the players are Latino. Just this weekend in Chicago, Shakira played to a full house at the United Center, but Latino music also played at Ravinia -- a very white venue on the north shore of Chicago and VIVA Chicago had music for two days in downtown. The non-Latino population is embracing many of the Latino styles and traditions. I don’t see Latinization blending or diverging but embracing Latino styles, values and culture.
Q. Tell us about Latina women. How do they differ from other women consumers in the U.S.?
A. We are not significantly different -- for most products we are the primary consumer for the family. What is different is that we start our families younger and as mentioned before we have larger families. So the opportunity for companies to start a relationship and build a long-term consumer with Latinas makes them a very attractive target.
Q. You've spent a good deal of time overseas and in heavily Latino markets like Miami. What lessons can marketers take from these markets as their Latino populations grow?
A. One of the most obvious lessons about living in different markets is that all Latinos are not the same. Although the majority of the U.S. Hispanic population is Mexican, we are also from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Peru, etc. We are a very diverse Latino population here in the United States and appreciate it when that diversity is recognized and respected. That is not to say that each immigrant group needs a “different” Spanish. For the most part, we all speak with the same mother tongue that is Spanish. To demonstrate that marketers know this, they could show a group of Latinos together that are from different countries – Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guatemala in an ad. Mainstream consumers wouldn’t necessarily recognize the differences, but the Latinos do.
Q. What can business do to be more inclusive of Latinas in management and decision-making? Is special action needed now?
A. Companies can identify and develop their Latina talent. Are the Latinas in upper management and if not, why? These women can then serve as mentors for those that are at the entry level. Consider flex time for all your women and men so they can participate actively with their children at special times. Establish a Latino employee group so that Latinas will have an opportunity to have a collective voice to participate in policy, mentoring and growth.
Q. As a Latina executive, what do you think are the values that Latinos in general and Latinas in particular, bring to business?
A. There are two big ones. Since one of our strongest values is the family, that dynamic teaches us so many things. We learn the importance of teamwork, building communication, mentoring, networking and collaboration. With larger families and multi-generational families living together, we must excel in all of those skills. The second one is determination and hard work. We all know the value of doing the job well and many of us work hard and long hours to provide the best we can for our families. Moreover, if you see two or more Latinos working together you will probably hear some good-natured laughing, so there is a good esprit de corps!
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