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Every time we hear or read "Hispanic market," we also hear the tagline "acculturation level." So what is acculturation, and why is it important to take it into consideration?

By definition, acculturation is the adoption of the behavior patterns of the surrounding culture. To simplify, acculturation is the time between arrival to a new culture and assimilation into that culture.

The acculturation process takes an estimated 10-15 years and varies from person to person. Hispanics have longer acculturation periods because they keep their values, celebrate their heritage, and pass those values and that heritage from generation to generation.

Hispanics tend not to assimilate as quickly as previous migration waves—for two reasons:

  • The first reason is technology. Today it is easy and inexpensive to keep in touch with the homeland. The use of the Internet and advances in communications allow us to communicate with those on the other side of the world as easily as it is to talk to your neighbor.
  • The second reason is "celebration of diversity." In the modern world, diversity is a good thing; whereas, 40-50 years ago, it was not socially accepted and immigrants made a greater effort to assimilate as fast as possible into their new host environment.

Now it is OK to be different; we not only acknowledge and accept diversity but also celebrate it.

Acculturation as Segmentation

We use acculturation as the first level of segmentation for the Hispanic market.

Acculturation level allows us to segment Hispanics by language attainment; income level; and, in many cases, purchasing behaviors.

To better understand what acculturation is, think of your first day in a new job.

When you started, you didn't know anyone in your surroundings. Although everybody seemed comfortable in their environment, you did not understand the technical language or get the casual jokes among peers that made reference to the past.

You had to ask for directions to the restroom. When you checked your inbox for the first time, there were many emails with general information that made no sense. You were confused, excited, and scared, but with time you learned the ways of your new job and started feeling more comfortable.

You established relationships, learned to navigate your environment, and eventually became totally immersed in the culture. In a nutshell, that is acculturation.

Depending on the source, acculturation can be segmented in various ways, but for the purpose of this article, we will break it down into three categories: unacculturated, bicultural, and acculturated.

Unacculturated Hispanics...

  • Are Spanish-dominant (language)
  • Have recently arrived in the United States
  • Reside in neighborhoods with a high density of Hispanics
  • Conduct business in Spanish
  • Rely on Spanish media
  • Purchase products that are familiar— i.e., available in their homeland
  • Practice Hispanic traditions

Bicultural Hispanics...

  • Are bilingual
  • Are born in the United States or have been in the country for several years
  • Live in metropolitan areas
  • Use English as their primary language for business
  • Are comfortable with Spanish and English media
  • Purchase products that are not exclusive or distinctive to Hispanic consumers
  • Remain loyal to Hispanic traditions and customs

Acculturated Hispanics...

  • Are English-dominant
  • Are born in the United States or have been here for 10 or more years
  • Live in suburban areas
  • Conduct business in English
  • Prefer English media
  • Have similar purchase behavior as the general market
  • Observe few or no Hispanic traditions

As you can see, acculturation is just the tip of the iceberg; it is the first segmentation layer. Acculturation helps you define language usage for your communications and may even give you a hint about product acceptance.

Not long ago, I worked on a project for which we conducted a direct-marketing test with three products that had different price points and similar characteristics. The highest price point had a greater response rate in the acculturated segment, and the lowest price point had its greatest acceptance in the unacculturated segment.

When communicating, marketing, or selling to Hispanics, don't treat the segment as a whole, and be sure to use acculturation as your first line of segmentation.

Speaking to the Hispanic Audience

Many people talk about the importance of the Hispanic market, how large it is, and how it is a "must reach out to" segment to increase sales. If only that were as easy to do as it is to say.

The Hispanic segment is not monolithic. Hispanics come from 22 countries. More than half of the Hispanic population in the United States are born in the United States. They differ in age and background, and they have individual needs.

Many think that Hispanics can be defined solely by the Spanish language. Though Spanish usage is very important when communicating to low-acculturated and bicultural Hispanics, the acculturated segment is usually more comfortable using English.

Regardless of the language, it is important to be culturally relevant and compelling. Though language is a unifying characteristic, there are three other important factors to consider when marketing to Hispanics: family, food, and faith.

Family. In the Hispanic world, life revolves around the family. It is typical for extended families to live together and maintain close relationships. Families are so close that important decisions, such as large purchases, are usually made together.

Community also plays an important role in the Hispanic family. Often those in the community are considered an extension of the family and are consulted on important matters.

Food. Food feeds nostalgia, provides comfort, and is one way to savor the homeland. It is that magical thing that immigrants turn to when they need to feel close to their roots.

Families gather around the table not just to eat but to interact and share their lives. Lower-acculturated Hispanics visit the supermarket on average three times more than the general market. (Source: "El Mercado 2005: A Perspective on US Hispanic Shopping Behavior," the Food Marketing Institute.)

Faith. More than 70% of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic. Studies have found that 40% of Hispanics go to church voluntarily at least once a week. Catholicism has deep roots in the culture. (Source: "The Faith of Hispanics Is Shifting," Barna Group, 2001.)

Church is an important part of the Hispanic community and is an excellent place to connect with the Hispanic community. Leveraging with the head of the church can be an effective way of conducting a grassroots initiative when reaching out to the segment.

Because Hispanics come from a wide array of places and have different backgrounds and distinctive needs, you cannot treat the Hispanic population as whole. However, you can use any or all of the four unifying factors—language, family, food, and faith—to better communicate and increase your reach within the Hispanic segment.

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Ederick Lokpez is principal of HispanoConnect and a Hispanic-marketing consultant who has helped Fortune 500 companies to improve their reach within the Hispanic market. Reach Ederick via

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