Recently I was talking to a friend about Alfonso Cuarón’s movie, Roma. We were debating the narrative’s pace and style. He, being an Anglo-American thought it was too slow, too visual. Me, saying that it was a beautiful movie that reminded me of my upbringing in Latin America. I realized this was not only a discussion about just film but rather, about different styles of storytelling.
This exchange is reflective of how culture can impact how people react to a story, not just the content of a plot, but also the style of the narrative storytelling. That minor nuance is significant in film and books, and it is as meaningful on how marketers approach their communication strategies when it comes to marketing to Hispanics.
For example, back in 2004, I joined the old Nextel organization, famous for their two-way walkie talkie services, as their Director of Hispanic Marketing Communications. One of my first assignments on the new job was to review a new campaign developed for General Market and led the adaptation of that campaign for the Hispanic segment.
The new creative idea for General Market, brilliantly created by the TBWA/Chiat team, had the tagline “Done”, and was focused on the fact that Nextel’s two-way push-to-talk technology allowed businesses to run smoothly and accomplish more, fast.
However, when we tested this idea with Hispanic consumers, known for being big fans of Nextel’s services, they were not as receptive to the “Done” campaign as they thought it depicted personal relationships that were too cold and lacked empathy and a more human connection. I remember listening to comments from focus groups such as: ‘I don’t want to connect with someone from my business or social circle (which for many Hispanics are the same circle), ask for a question, get an answer, and that’s it. I would ask them first how they are doing; we would probably talk about sports or something we watched on TV, about our kids and family and only then, will I bring up the business issue at point. That’s how we do things; we are Hispanics!’
Long story short, we decided not to translate the “Done” campaign to “Hecho”, and rather shifted the benefit derived from the service from “fast problem solution” to the “power of immediacy”. The walkie-talkie would connect you to your needs quickly, hence our new Spanish tagline “Ya” (Right Now). The change was a success and became a case study for the industry, and it was the beginning of a shift that moved from translation to culturally driven advertising that today is so prevalent in our industry.
I asked my colleague Angela Rodriguez, an expert of culturally driven marketing, to further expand on the impact culture can have on storytelling.
‘Storytelling is at the core of culture. It is how histories are passed down, how customs are shared and how traditions become endemic to a group. Shared culture is rooted in a shared tradition of communicating. The stories a group tells meta communicate what a culture values,’ states Rodriguez. ‘But it’s not just what stories they choose to tell that transmit culture, it’s how they choose to tell them. Do they get to the point? Do they linger over details? How important is context vs. outcomes?’
When we reflect on the differences in the classic stories from different cultures, it is easy to see what Rodriguez means. Considering great children’s novels of the late 19th Century from two distinct Anglo cultures, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from the United States and the English Alice in Wonderland gives us insight into the very different things that these two groups who speak the same language value. Tom Sawyer presents a distinctly American approach: demonstrating cause and effect outcomes through lessons and ultimate moral resolution. In the end, Tom has grown up, and things he doesn’t like are deemed to be ‘just how things are done.’
Meanwhile, Alice in Wonderland has no such ambition. It leaves all teaching behind and creates a fantastical world meant only for young readers to enjoy. In the end, the fantasy, and Alice carries on happily in the real world.
Both those examples contrast when we consider Latin American literature, which presents no ‘classic”’ works for the young. Rather its novels are read equally by the young and old. One of Latin America’s great works is 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. A story which ends in an abrupt and rather meaningless resolution after pages of metaphors that meander in much the same way that Latinos communicate.
The Latin American penchant for metaphor aligns us neatly with the cultures inverted pyramid communication style. That is, presenting all the context and relevant facts before ultimately getting to the point. This style is opposite from most Anglo cultures that deem ‘time is money’ and, as such, demand getting to the point first.
Which brings us, in typically Latin American fashion after a bit of meandering, to the point. It is crucial that marketers understand the communication methods of the segments they speak to and hire professionals who can talk not just a group’s language but also their style.
After all, the biggest marketing challenge nowadays is not about reaching people, but rather how to connect with them and for us Latinos, the bridge to grab our attention is not via our brains, but instead via our hearts. As Nelson Mandela would once said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’