Anyone who has ever looked at the U.S. Hispanic market views it from the lens of segmentation – or the subsets within the broader market, based on one or more shared characteristics. There are countless ways to segment the U.S. Hispanic market: age, religion, political affiliation, family size, nationality, geography, etc. However, as I’ve written extensively, there are some macro segmentation models that are commonly used as a first, broad step in thinking about the 50 million plus U.S. Hispanic consumer market. Three of the most used macro segmentation models are
- language preference;
- acculturation; and
- immigrant generation.
It’s fair to say language preference is probably the most commonly used of these macro segmentation models considering most Hispanic marketing is focused on individuals who speak Spanish. Language has separated Hispanics – a population that would otherwise not be reached in English using English media – and created the scale that made the population so appealing to companies, politicians, and anyone else looking to “tap” into the growing market. It is a disparate group of immigrants from 21 different countries.
From a marketer’s perspective, language is big, serving as the clear and understandable “firewall” between so-called “general market” advertising programs reaching general consumers and niche/targeted “Hispanic” programs designed specifically to resonate with them. Language has driven how most marketers have crafted their marketing messages to the Hispanic market, typically in Spanish.
As with any segmentation model, a core assumption of this language macro segmentation model is most Hispanics fit into one of the following three “language” subgroups:
- Spanish-dominant – prefer to speak Spanish and consume almost exclusively Spanish media. They speak, read and write Spanish well.
- English-dominant – prefer to speak English and consume English-language media. They speak, read, and write English well.
- Bilingual – go back and forth between English and Spanish easily and naturally and consume English and Spanish language media interchangeably. They speak, read and write English and Spanish well.
I’ve always considered this model to be an accurate representation of an otherwise complex world of U.S. Hispanics – not perfect, but a sound, basic framework to use in any critical analysis of how to approach the market. That is, until recently, when I began working with a new client. A client in the education industry.
As we’ve been digging into the data on their target Hispanic audience, we’ve all been essentially forced to call into question this basic, simple language segmentation model. Specifically, we see growing evidence of the existence of a potentially large segment of Hispanics who don’t fit into any of the aforementioned three language groups.
A group of Hispanics without proficient command of English or Spanish. A predominantly younger group – ages 18-44 – born to first generation immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America. Some are foreign-born and moved to the U.S. as children. Others, however, were born in the U.S. and raised in all Spanish households and neighborhoods, rendering their U.S. upbringing functionally identical to their foreign-born counterparts. They are not second generation but are not first generation in the traditional sense. They are a group functionally, culturally and linguistically in the middle.
A quick academic literature review uncovers that this group of Hispanics has been a topic of debate in the higher education community for five years. We can’t take credit for having discovered this missing “language” segment. There has been a fair amount of scholarly research done on this transition group by the educational community, commonly dubbed “Generation 1.5.”
As defined by Oudenhoven (2006), “Generation 1.5 students are immigrant students who move to the United States at the age of 12 or older and enroll in middle school or high school in this country.” Their Generation 1.5 label comes from their special place as first-generation Americans who migrated to the U.S. as children, and have a strong cultural identification as Americans, but were born in another country. Educators, particularly within community colleges, have struggled to address the unique needs of this growing population. Four-year colleges are beginning to face this challenge.
While most of the focus of research and analysis on this group has been related to education, the impact of the existence and growth of the “middle” generation of younger Hispanics is profound for marketers. This group’s existence, potentially on a large scale, creates all kinds of problems for the common associations made with the three-part language segmentation model, including media preference, message impact and absorption. Do you buy Spanish media to reach them or English, or a combination? What language do you message them in? If in Spanish, what level of proficiency and vocabulary do you assume? In a world increasingly driven by search engines and keywords, how these consumers use type in search phrases can be complex. What taxonomy is appropriate on digital platforms like Websites, mobile devices and social apps?
Most important, the existence of a Hispanic Generation 1.5 points to an unmet need by a large segment of U.S. Hispanics – possibly tens of millions of them. This unmet need is manifesting itself in our education system, which is quickly trying to adjust to meet their needs. However, this group will likely have unique needs throughout our commercial economy – financial services, health care, and media – just to name a few. As marketing becomes more about utility and providing value and less about blasting a one-way, self-serving message, there is potentially a huge opportunity for marketers who provide real value to Generation 1.5.