Marketing to Latinos in the Midwest

Photo credit: Juan Daniel Castro

This past month was the closing of a personal chapter for me. Since 2003, I have served on the board of directors for a West Michigan based non-profit called the Mexican Heritage Association (MHA). The MHA has been a proud institution in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for over forty years. Its flagship event is the Fiesta Mexicana, a three day celebration of Mexican culture that coincides with Mexican Independence Day every mid-September. The photo above was taken just minutes before the ceremonial Grito de Independencia as a huge crowd of patrons covered the Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids.

Over the past year, I had the privilege of serving as MHA’s board president. Despite the economic difficulties of running non-profit in a sour economy, we were able to plan a successful Fiesta Mexicana for the 2010 Bicentennial of Mexico’s independence. It was a proud moment for all of us on the board. Last month I handed over the reigns of MHA to a new group of community leaders. It was bittersweet, as I have many fond memories of my time with the organization. 

When I look at the photo above, not only is it a memento of pride, it also inspires me to consider how we in this Midwestern corner of the U.S. connect to our local Hispanic communities. The sea of people in the photo, estimated between 3,000 to 5,000 individuals, is only a small part of the over 58,000 Hispanics that live and work in Kent County, Michigan. That sum pales in comparison to the 436,000 Latinos that call Michigan home. Although Michigan is not known for its robust Hispanic populations, we do feel a sense of pride knowing that Latino growth over the last ten years (34.7%) helped to lessen the shrinking of Michigan’s population. We anticipate this trend to continue into the future. We also know that being here in the Midwest also has its own unique set of challenges for marketing and outreach to Hispanics.

One objective of the Fiesta Mexicana is to provide a sense of “home” for many Mexican-American individuals. This especially holds value for many recent arrivals from Mexico and Central America. Living in a different culture without easy access to the food, language, and customs that are familiar can cause many to feel disconnected. The annual Fiesta Mexicana event gives people a few days to experience a little bit of their national heritage and pride. As a board of directors, we were faced with the challenge of locating relevant programming opportunities and resources that are not as readily available in Michigan.

For example, there were times in the past when we simply didn’t have access to a quality Mariachi group among our local community of musicians. For those of you who are familiar with Mexican celebrations, especially for independence day, a good rousing group of Mariachis is practically a necessity. Often, we had to bring in talent from Chicago, a three hour drive away from Grand Rapids.

There was also the challenge of promotion for the event. West Michigan is not a region that boasts a local Hispanic or Spanish language television station. We often needed to rely on the credibility of advertising with local radio stations and newspapers. Fortunately, there were always a handful of radio personalities with local followings that seemed willing to help out.

One initiative that became sustainable for many years was a partnership with a local hospital. The hospital had a Hispanic outreach program that provided case managed services for individuals in the community. We forged a mutual agreement with the hospital—they provided monetary support for Fiesta Mexicana while we provided them with the opportunity to use the three day event to promote their services. The partnership was a two-way street for both organizations to build credibility with the local Mexican-American community.

More often than not, though, we had to connect to local Latino communities by using down and dirty promotions and aligning MHA with other “home-grown” Hispanic groups. Local soccer (fútbol) leagues become opportunities to “press-the-flesh” with families and spread the word. Simply selling bottles of water along with giving out promo fliers became effective marketing to individuals that had limited access to media. In addition, restaurants, grocery stores, bodegas, and other businesses became the brand diplomats for MHA. Their credibility within the community was immeasurable for us.

These were challenges that taught us how to become flexible and effective promoters within our community. I value the lessons I learned all these years with the Mexican Heritage Association–lessons that have molded my outlook about marketing to Latinos. They are not lessons taught in any college marketing course or MBA curriculum. The marketing insights we uncovered could not be synthesized through any brand strategy picked-up at a national seminar. The value that we needed to deliver was not available through any local resources at our disposal. When faced with limited access to resources and an environment that challenges cultural competence, an organization is required to become creative.

Take another look at the photo above from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yes, Hispanic marketing and outreach may have its challenges here in the Midwest, but it is certainly attainable. What are you doing to make it attainable for your brand?


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