Conde waxes optimistic that Univision can keep its momentum as Latinos’ population and buying power continue to grow. “When you look under the hood and you look at the younger demographic, Univision is already the No. 3 network in the country among adults under the age of 34, regardless of language,” he said. “You’re beginning to see a foreshadowing of what you’ll see down the road.”
Even with all of these efforts, much of corporate America has still been slow to catch on to the nation’s shifting demographics. In 2008-09, according to the latest figures from the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, more than half of the nation’s top 500 advertisers spent less than 1 percent of their advertising budgets on print, radio, and television ads designed to reach Latino consumers. Overall, the top 500 advertisers spent just 5.4 percent of their budgets on Hispanic media in 2009. This is despite the fact that buying a commercial on Univision has historically cost less than on a major English-language network, although the gap has shrunk.
“Not all companies have the desire to reach Hispanics,” multicultural researcher Rincón said, listing the banking, finance, and legal communities among the least interested in pursuing minority consumers. In many large consumer companies, he said, the multicultural marketing offices are little more than corporate backwaters; they’re typically poorly funded, lack support from the top, and work apart from the main advertising and marketing staffs. “It’s not that they’re blind to the potential opportunity” Latino consumers present, Rincón said, but “companies may feel like they can’t serve them properly, or they might need to first develop new products.”
The trick for businesses may be to simultaneously play to consumers’ roots while carving out a separate cultural identity palatable to a broader audience. “How do I keep 80 percent of my customers happy while speaking to emerging markets? Companies will need to create a sub-brand that speaks to new people,” former Coca-Cola executive Colón suggested. “No one has that yet.”
Though Univision may, for it is poised to benefit from a majority-minority America. Its desire, according to its COO Falco, is that advertisers devote 15 percent of their budgets to attracting Hispanic consumers and that big-box retailers set aside 20 to 25 percent. Whether they will, of course, remains to be seen.
Still, Univision is hardly alone in seeing dollar signs in the growing Hispanic population. Success breeds competition—from Telemundo, English-language networks, and local Spanish-language stations. Just as Univision plots a possible cable news channel, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has unveiled plans for a joint venture with National Geographic on a Spanish-language channel called Nat Geo Mundo. Other companies may find ways to target minority customers online and on smartphones.
“The new census is both a blessing and a curse for us,” Falco said. “It will give us a bigger audience, but it’s a curse in that it will finally wake up our competitors.”
Univision’s future faces an even deeper threat: assimilation. Traditionally, the network has appealed to native Spanish speakers and to recent immigrants, and its challenge is to stay in touch with its viewers. More of the Hispanic population’s projected growth is expected to come through births rather than immigration. This means that the network must find ways to appeal to second-, third-, and fourth-generation Spanish speakers, many of them bilingual and thus tempted by other options for entertainment and news.
Yet Falco is hopeful that culture—and language—will long continue to provide a route to Latinos’ hearts. “Our research shows that 75 percent of Hispanics still speak Spanish in their homes,” he said. “We’ll figure out the right way to reach people.”
BY POLITICAL MEANS
One way in which Conde plans to grab the attention of advertisers—and of Univision’s competitors—is by building up the network’s political influence. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Univision hosted debates for Republicans and Democrats, and it plans to do so again next year. Conde wants to add more correspondents and resources to cover the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls. Part of the benefit will likely fall right to the bottom line. The network took in $27 million in political advertising in the 2008 presidential campaign, according to Falco. He hopes to double that next year, when Latino votes will prove crucial to the outcomes in California, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas.
Univision’s public-affairs campaigns in recent years have positioned the network as a force in mobilizing Spanish-speaking voters. Since 2007, when it launched a voter-registration campaign, Univision has held naturalization workshops around the country and helped more than 1.4 million immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship. Early last year, it ran public-service announcements urging viewers to fill out census forms.
This, then, is Conde’s vision: a network that combines popular television shows with a political presence and an internal marketing arm that finds a competitive advantage by constantly collecting data on Hispanic consumers. If Conde succeeds, he’ll have created a hugely profitable business with a loyal audience, an ethnic company in an evolving economy that succeeds by keeping its customers in mind even as they meld into American society—and thereby change it. This suggests a new model for U.S. business, one that treats minority consumers as more than an afterthought—even before they become a majority of Americans a few short decades hence.
The writer is a business writer and editor in New York City.