For the past two decades or more, America’s businesses have been working to connect with the nation’s largest ethnic and fastest-growing demographic group: the Hispanic consumer.

According to The Hartman Group Inc., Bellevue, Wash., this mission to cash in on opportunities for future revenue growth can be fraught with peril for marketers that cling to what often passes for “Hispanic marketing,” an approach that rests more on stereotypes than it does on the realities of modern, acculturated Hispanic households.

Today’s marketers are pursuing the imagined needs and desires of the smallest percentage of Hispanic consumers—unacculturated Hispanics—and unwittingly bypassing acculturated and bicultural Hispanic consumers, who behave more like the 83% of the non-Hispanic U.S. population.

U.S. Census data projects America’s Hispanic population to reach 132.8 million by 2050, up from 52 million in 2011. Not surprisingly, this group has significant buying power, currently spending more than $1 trillion annually and forecast to increase 50% to $1.5 trillion by 2015.

In “Courting Hispanic Consumers?,” The Hartman Group notes that while it shares this sense of optimism for the opportunities that Hispanic consumers represent, it is also aware of the significant complexities that lie ahead for those wishing to woo this diverse consumer group.

Despite food-marketing standards to the contrary, one Hispanic type does not exist. Of Hispanic-origin consumers in the U.S., 63% were of Mexican background in 2010. The balance of the Hispanic population is a blend of diverse backgrounds including Puerto Rican (9.2%), Cuban (3.5%), Salvadoran (3.3%) Dominican (2.8%), and other Central American, South American, and Hispanic/Latino origins.

As Greg Prang, Ph.D., senior ethnographic analyst at The Hartman Group, points out, within each country, vast differences exist among Hispanics, ranging from socio-economic to regional based on the cultures of individual states in those countries. “There might be hundreds of tribal languages in Mexico,” he notes. “There’s as much difference between people from Monterrey and those from Oaxaca as there is between Miamians and Clevelanders, or more, so it’s hard to break it down to marketing to just one type, for sure.”

Consequently, the greatest challenge facing those courting the Hispanic consumer is to overcoming the tendency to generalize and simplify from their own limited experiences.

“Marketers lose sight of the fact that the majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are born here,” explains Amy Sousa, Ph.D., ethnographic analyst at The Hartman Group. “There is another large percentage of educated Latino consumers who came to this country assimilated and used to American customs. Quite frankly, Latin America isn’t that different. Marketers seem to be fixated on targeting the smallest segment of Hispanics consumers—those who are less educated, still learning English and not yet fully acculturated. This is not where the greatest opportunities lie.”

According to The Hartman Group’s cultural analysts, the most effective way to reach the Hispanic market is by targeting Millennials.

“Millennials tend to be younger as a group, because they are,” explains Sousa. “Recent census data shows that the median age of U.S. Hispanics is 27. They’re adventurous with foods, they eat Thai food, they eat various kinds of food, but they don’t think of their actions as exotic. They don’t think, ‘Today I’ll try teriyaki.’ It’s just food to them.”

Connecting with a younger demographic increasingly involves the Internet. According to The Hartman Group, its research shows that Hispanics over-index in terms of social media. They use smart phones and mobile Internet more than non-Hispanics. Thus, to get these Millennials’ attention, marketers should consider moving beyond traditional forms of media, such as TV ads and printed circulars, and look toward emerging marketing technologies, such as mobile couponing and user-generated content.

Social technology and media aren’t the only effective ways to reach Hispanics, however. Sousa and Prang agree that Hispanic consumers have an appreciation for fresh foods and are willing to take food chances.

“Someone who is Hispanic and very food-forward is going to look for natural, fresh, quality ingredients,” says Sousa. “It’s about fresh food and being able to cook it and consume it as a family.”

Sousa cites Frontera Foods, a line of salsa, chips, chili starters and other products from chef Rick Bayless, as one food company that is effectively reaching Hispanics by “consciously trying to be respectful of how food should properly taste.” Bayless, whose cookbook Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico was ground-breaking in the U.S. in 1987, has taken his staff to Mexico, Sousa points out, “and works hard to have authentic food.”

Also, while all major grocery stores have small Hispanic areas, some stores reach Latinos more effectively. “Someone I interviewed recently, a young Latino male, an immigrant, mentioned that Trader Joe’s has prepared Mexican foods that taste authentic, and that he’s been shopping there since discovering that,” Sousa says.

Furthermore, people tend to shop by habit, whether living in the U.S. or back in Colombia. There is a misperception that Hispanics who arrive in this country are being exposed to American brands for the first time. Many of today’s major brands, however, are established global brands. In Mexico City, for instance, American and Mexican brands can be found side by side in store. When immigrants come to America, the Mexican brands are gone, but the American brands are still there, so Mexican-Americans choose those in many cases.

Source: The Hartman Group Inc.