This article appeared in the December, 2005 issue of Marketing y Medios under the title "The Sound That Sells". The rights have reverted to me so I am posting the piece in its entirety. Please contact me (luis dot clemens at gmail dot com) directly if you are interested in reprint rights.
Sound That Sells Regional Mexican music pops onto the radar of marketers who had
long dismissed the genre in their brand efforts
December 01, 2005
By Luis Clemens
Regional Mexican music is an awkward topic for advertising agencies and marketers. It is by far the most popular Latin music genre and the one least likely to be featured in Hispanic advertising. Those who justify this stark discrepancy find themselves tiptoeing around issues of race and class. Much of the discussion takes place in code.
"Foreign," "niche" and "old-fashioned" are terms politely used by Hispanic marketers to describe regional Mexican music. Dominant might be a more accurate description given its 51 percent market share of all Latin music. The genre is, in effect, overlooked and underemployed when it comes to the nationwide marketing of consumer brands. In sharp contrast, the music of Daddy Yankee and Shakira is enthusiastically described as "crossover," having "mass appeal" and "young." He has a large deal with Pepsi, she with Verizon Wireless. Both are deemed "sexy."
By implication, regional Mexican music, which runs the gamut from tuba-playing banda to tambora-thumping duranguense and acordeón-flavored norteño, is definitely not seen as sexy. "What would you rather have on your office wall?" asks Chris Campos, executive vp and director of client services at GlobalHue. "A picture of you with Shakira or a picture of you with Los Tigres del Norte?"
Regional Mexican music pops onto the radar of marketers who had long dismissed the genre in their brand efforts
regional Mexican artists for a national advertising campaign is widely
considered to be somewhere between ineffective and actively bad for business. There
is evidence and a vocal minority that points to a different conclusion. "If
[brands] went and advertised in this spectrum of music, they would be very
successful," says Irazema Vidaurri, a Los Angeles-based consultant who has
put together marketing deals for a broad range of Latin musicians. "[Regional
Mexican music] is a hidden gem."
If so, then it is hidden in plain sight. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sales of regional Mexican music account for more than half of all Latin music sales, and almost 14 million units with a value of $183 million were sold during the first six months of the year. According to Arbitron, regional Mexican format is both a lucrative and popular program radio format. According to Scarborough Research, more than 56 percent of the audience for regional Mexican stations is 18 to 34 years old. Even thieves think it is popular. RIAA says regional Mexican albums are heavily pirated.
Yet there are only a handful of companies that have consistently associated themselves with this music. This year a small number of brands are employing regional Mexican musicians for campaigns specific to the West Coast and Texas, with initial activity coming from brands that have a high number of Mexican-American consumers.
For Dodge's line of Ram trucks, 75percent of Latino buyers are Mexican, and 59 percent are located in California, Texas or Colorado. "We wanted to resonate with our Mexican buyer who represents the bulk of our sales," says Liz Silvi, senior vp, field account director of GlobalHue, who, while working for DaimlerChrysler and the California Dodge Dealers Association, implemented a comprehensive agreement with banda and mariachi star Lupillo Rivera. The agreement features TV commercials, radio spots, print ads, private concerts, meet and greets, and a picture of Rivera in his customized Dodge Ram truck on the inside of his latest CD.
"Lupillo is such a man of the people. His music, his lyrics ... he really is popular with la raza," Silvi says. Rivera has sold more than 2 million albums in six years as a recording artist. Prior to the Rivera campaign, Dodge had been sponsoring weekend events for almost a year at Pico Rivera Sports Arena, a popular Regional Mexican music venue.
From the beginning of the campaign in April, the expectation was that Rivera's endorsement would boost the brand's image among fans and with other hard-working immigrants. As Rivera puts it, "If I see [mariachi legend] Vicente Fernández [advertising] a new toothbrush, I am going to go out and buy it. That is the way fans are." The underlying premise is that Rivera's regional Mexican music not only appeals to the Dodge Ram's core Mexican immigrant buyer but embodies the lifestyle they left behind.
Silvi says, "When you think about a man and his truck, [the truck] is almost [like] his horse, his companion." That may sound slightly silly, at first, but the truck-horse-Rivera association works well on one level. Namely, the traditional garb of a mariachi musician is the elaborately embroidered riding gear of un charro, a Mexican horseman. On another level, though, it obscures the reality of Rivera's background and that of many of his fans.
BORN IN MEXICO, MADE IN THE USA
Rivera was born in Mexico but grew up in Long Beach, Calif., from the age of four. Now 33, he says, "I was a skater," but quickly adds, "but never a surfer." His flawless English is unmistakably American while his flawless Spanish is undeniably Mexican. "My dad always kept us in the music. Always let us know what our culture was and [taught us] to respect the culture."
He is the embodiment of the 1.5 generation, a member of that group of Latino immigrants born overseas, but raised and immersed in U.S. culture from before the age of five. In the same month, he would perform just as easily in Guadalajara as in Phoenix. He doesn't spend much time riding horses but has a luxury automobile collection that includes two Bentleys. "I was the first singer to have a shaved head and represent our culture in a different way," he says. By different, he also means that he often appears on stage in a suit, which represents a radical departure for regional Mexican music. In the three commercials he filmed for Dodge, he appears in a close-fitting muscle T-shirt.
Without providing specific figures, Silvi says, "We've seen increases in sales. Dealers are happy with the campaign. We find that our advertising, when it does reflect the market, it does much better in generating sales." Whether Rivera's agreement with Dodge will be renewed in February is still unclear. However, Silvi describes the Rivera campaign as the most "targeted creative" the agency has used for a regional Dodge campaign.
Novamex, a Mexican company that owns four popular beverage brands including Jarritos and Sidral Mundet, is exclusively in the targeted creative business. Jesús Díaz, corporate marketing manager for Novamex U.S. operation, says, "We don't want [to convey] a Latino brand image or a Hispanic brand image. We want something that is completely Mexican." To that end, last year they did a joint national sweepstakes with Bimbo Bakeries, featuring regional Mexican band Conjunto Primavera. The prize was a private performance by the band for the winner and 49 friends. The promotion was timed to coincide with the band's tour, which offered a slew of locations and opportunities to pitch the contest to both consumers and distributors.
"Zapatero a tus zapatos (loosely meaning 'stick to what you know')," says Eva Moraga, Novamex brand manager. "I am not Pepsi, I am not Coca-Cola. We know where our strengths lie. [Regional Mexican music] is very emotional for our consumer, very personal." Diaz says the promotion generated a "pretty significant sales increase." Novamex is unconcerned about non-Mexican consumers.
Meanwhile, Hanes is counting on the "broad appeal" enjoyed by another regional Mexican musician, Pablo Montero, for its current national Spanish-language ad campaign. Anita Albán-Gastelum, of Los Angeles-based Axis Communications, says, "Él es un charro 100 por ciento ... He breathes it but he has more popular appeal and he is young and fits the demo." And as David Robertson, director of brand communications for Hanes, puts it, "women don't find him hard to look at." Montero, in addition to his singing, is also a telenovela actor. People en Español included him in this year's list of the 25 Sexiest Bachelors.
In one of the Hanes commercials, he is shown changing his T-shirt. "[Music] didn't really come up. He is interesting [as] both a singer and actor," Robertson says. "That is part of why his appeal is so high." Montero is not the first mariachi artist to garner a non-Mexican following in the U.S. In fact, Vicente Fernández and his son, Alejandro, both enjoy a much larger and dedicated base among mariachi fans. But Montero may well be the first to shill for brands in both his skivvies and full charro regalia. A Texas-only campaign appeared this summer featuring Montero promoting a special edition of the Ford F-150 Lobo truck. In the ad, he appears wearing a traditional mariachi outfit. He kicked off the campaign with a special Cinco de Mayo concert in Dallas. "It is an excellent proposition to associate music with a product," says Campos, whose agency works on both the Dodge and Verizon Wireless accounts. "But now you have to put yourself in the corporate mentality [and] maximize the multicultural resources. [So] you do a shotgun approach."
A SURPLUS OF 'GENERIC' HISPANICS
The shotgun, in the case of Verizon, is called Shakira. "[She] is a very appealing artist to various generations and ethnicities within the Latino segment." Still, they topped up their Hispanic marketing efforts by sponsoring a fall concert series with regional Mexican artists such as Banda El Recodo and Los Tucanes de Tijuana. The concert was called Musicanísimo, which is a made up word mixing music and Mexicanisimo. "We understand particularly in the West how important the Mexican and Mexican-American community is, and that is the base of our marketing effort there," says Oscar Madrid, director of multicultural marketing at Verizon Wireless. "We can't broad-brush the Latino community. One size does not fit all."
Yet the selection of a sole artist for a national campaign does indeed fit most if not all. When asked if it might not be better from the perspective of return on investment to opt for a regional Mexican musician in a national campaign, Madrid asked a company media relations rep who was listening in on the conversation: "Are we comfortable with answering that?"
No marketer wants to be even remotely perceived as someone who slights the Mexican-American population, which represents 66 percent of the Latino market. Many still remember Fonovisa's boycott of the Latin Grammys for what the music label perceived as a deliberate slight of regional Mexican music. Yet no one is willing to overlook the Cuban or Puerto Rican populations, which together represent a small percentage of the U.S. population. So there's a surplus of generic Hispanic advertising that tries not to alienate any group.
That's not to say that Shakira is generic. She is not, but the Colombian pop star does not enjoy the same connection with as many Mexican fans as do say Los Temerarios or Los Tigres del Norte. Both groups have been performing as long as Shakira has been alive.
Campos, who works on the Verizon Wireless account on behalf of GlobalHue, is forthright in explaining the structural as well as the cultural impediments to more widespread use of the best-selling Latin music genre. "If you have basically one shot to communicate something across the entire Latino population in the States, it is hard to focus on just truly reaching the Mexican market," says Campos, who was born and raised in Mexico. "Would I run the Lupillo [campaign] in Miami and New York? No, because the message is going to be missed."
National media buys are based on efficiency. "On the national level I am trying to reach Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians. You cannot regionalize your national message without offending someone," Silvi says. "It has to be more generalized Spanish and more generic culture." It's all the better if the celebrity enjoys crossover appeal, as with Shakira, and can be prominently featured in the English-language campaign as well. This, in turn, means marketing executives can split their costs with general-market budgets.
PLAYING SAFE WITH 'MASS APPEAL'
But general Spanish and generic Hispanic culture can sometimes lead nowhere. "We had a national Dodge spot last year and the markets were complaining," Silvi says. "It was too general. It was a Latin spot, but it did not speak specifically to the audience."
This year's national ad campaign, "La Promesa," explicitly targets Mexican buyers through a series of commercials meant to mimic the look and feel of a telenovela. Given the telenovela's success with a large majority of Spanish-language viewers in the United States, it is considered a safe way to connect with Mexican consumers without alienating Hispanics from other countries. Regional Mexican music is a lot tougher sell than telenovelas. "It is not cool from a mass perspective," Campos says.
Williams College professor María Elena Cepeda studies what is cool and why in Latino popular culture. "Mexican regional is very much swept under the rug relative to other musical genres," she says. "I think it reflects the fact that right now the industry is very heavily based in Miami as opposed to Los Angeles and New York." (Similar opinions highlighting the Los Angeles-Miami cultural divide were expressed by four other people interviewed for this article.) Cepeda believes regional Mexican is viewed by music industry and marketing executives alike as "really hokey" and "chusma." She says, "It is classicism and racism."
Campos says, "We are a racist community. Now we are getting into a philosophical discussion of how someone like Shakira who is more European-looking, a client can identify with her more than Los Temerarios. It is just comfort, familiarity and trust." Besides, he says, "as an agency it is an easier selling proposition."
Easier, in large measure, because there is plenty of media coverage of Shakira and Juanes and Paulina Rubio, and clients are more likely to have some awareness of those artists. There is very little mainstream media coverage of regional Mexican music.
"It takes a lot of education to make a corporate executive understand that a sponsorship deal with Los Temerarios can be just as effective if not more than a similar deal with a reggaeton artist," says Henry Cárdenas, the Colombia-born president of Cárdenas Marketing Network, a Chicago-based event marketing company and concert promoter. "It is a whole other world."
The simple experience of attending, say, an Alejandro Sanz concert at American Airlines Arena in Miami is very different from attending a baile featuring Lupillo Rivera and Banda Cuisillos at the San Diego, Calif., convention center. The Sanz concert will last two hours or so. The baile, though, will start at 6:30 p.m. and continue through 2 a.m. Typically, two or three big-name acts appear over the course of the night. Two stages are set up side by side so that while one performance is going on the other stage is being set up. There is no break in the performance and no letup in the dancing.
"There is a misconception that [regional Mexican fans] don't have money," says marketing consultant Vidaurri. "You should see them bust out a wad of cash to buy drinks, flowers and pay to have their photographs taken." Plus tickets, which range from $35 to $50. Vidaurri has taken to inviting clients to events "so they see the massive response, the massive exposure."
Many regional Mexican acts tour constantly. Fifteen performances a month before up to 100,000 people is not an unusual crowd at the height of a tour. With those numbers and a fun-filled and free-spending environment it rapidly becomes clear why breweries are enthusiastic supporters of regional Mexican music (see sidebar, page 27).
The fans at these events, according to Cardenas, "are the masses ... the real market, the blue-collar worker who is loyal and uses the same brand of soap day in and day out." Both Cardenas and Vidaurri say that selling sponsorship deals for these acts to consumer brands is an uphill task. Neither can understand why this is so. "For some reason, it is overlooked. Regional Mexican has such a strong powerful connection [to the fan] and is somehow overlooked," says Vidaurri.
RADIO BLARES REGIONAL MEXICAN
The Spanish-language radio industry, though, is in love with regional Mexican music. It is the best-performing program format in Spanish-language radio with more than 250 stations and 17.9 percent of overall audience share, according to Arbitron. Stacie de Armas, director of Hispanic services at Arbitron, says, "There has been a lot of discussion and hype about the new formats, but Mexican regional is the mainstay." This is true for both the 18 to 34 demographic and 25 to 54. De Armas says, "It is interesting that the population is younger than what we might think."
That is interesting and surprising to many. Jon Bloom, general manager of Raleigh, N.C.-based WYMY-FM, says his national sales manager gets a call almost every week from media buyers looking to buy time simply because it is the number-two rated local radio station overall in the 18 to 34 demographic.
The sales manager closes the deal and then gently reminds the buyer to send the Spanish-language spot because WYMY is a regional Mexican radio station popularly known as "La Ley." Bloom says the buyers are often shocked. "[The regional Mexican format] is very appealing to the younger segment ... [it] is pretty hot spins and quick rotations. Very fast-paced format. Very aggressive, upbeat and hot-tempo," he says. The station has experienced 30 percent annual growth in ratings and revenues since it flipped to the regional Mexican format two and a half years ago. "The growth in this format is driven by the consumer and increase in ad dollars," says de Armas. "Advertisers are realizing ROI and the format is programmed very well and has great draw."
Advertisers are earning, knowingly or not, return on investment with this format for several reasons. According to Scarborough, 22.3 percent of Mexican regional radio listeners are 18 to 24 and 34.5 percent are 25-34. Fully 73 percent of listeners have four or more individuals in the household. Almost a quarter have three or more children under 18 living in the same home. As de Armas says, "Larger families equals greater need for more products and services." That they buy more clothes and grocery is no surprise. But according to Scarborough, they are also 10 percent more likely to purchase a DVR than the average 18 to 34 year old Hispanic.
"Hispanic urban and reggaeton and youth-driven formats are taking some share of the Hispanic market but not necessarily at the expense of regional Mexican," says Luis Villareal, vice president of Cleveland-based McVay Media Consulting. "[Regional Mexican] will always be there even with an assimilated and acculturated audience." The proof is in the fact that an increasing number of successful regional Mexican musicians, in addition to Rivera, are 1.5ers or actually born and raised in the U.S. such as the lead singers of Los Horóscopos de Durango. The band is part of the popular music movement associated with the northern state of Durango and oddly enough, Chicago, Illinois. There are even second-generation Mexicans performing and creatively stretching the genre such as the Latin Grammy-winning Intocable and Brenda Gomez, who mixes traditional music with reggaeton in her recently released album.
There was never any doubt in Danny Crowe's mind that regional Mexican music was an effective vehicle for reaching an acculturated Latino audience in the United States. In his capacity as president of cable channel LATV, Crowe came up with the idea in 2002 for Mex 2 the Max, a program dedicated to showcasing regional Mexican musicians and others influenced by the genre. Current advertisers of the show include Target and Tower Records. "It was conceived as an effort to make clear that [regional Mexican] is important," he says. "We managed to be cool with regional Mexican." Part of it, Crowe says, was picking former model Patricia López to host the show. The other part was highlighting the music videos of other musicians influenced by regional Mexican music. Among them is a group of Tijuana-based musicians known as Nortec Collective whose electronic sound is considered the epitome of hip and trendy club music. However, without any provocation, one of the members, Roberto Mendoza, blurts out: "Los Tigres del Norte are way cooler than we are." The Collective blends electronic dance music with traditional regional Mexican forms such as banda and folk music instruments such as the accordion and tuba.
In effect, Nortec Collective has made regional Mexican music palatable for advertisers. Audio clips of their music have been sold for use in more than a dozen commercials, including EA Games, Heineken and even a Japanese brand of jeans. Notwithstanding, though, agencies and corporations still shy away from using the real, unadulterated and traditional version of regional Mexican music.
THE ROOT OF APPREHENSIONS
Three explanations are repeatedly used to spell out why regional Mexican music is not used for national campaigns. They are, namely, unattractive demographics; the potential for alienating other Hispanic groups; and the genre's perceived "traditionalism."
The first explanation simply does not hold water. Arbitron and Scarborough data clearly indicate that listeners are firmly in the 18 to 34 segment with sufficient disposable income even for major purchases such as buying a home.
The fear, though, that showcasing regional Mexican artists will alienate other Latino audiences is conventional wisdom and typically based on personal experience. "I grew up a Puerto Rican in [New York]. Tubas, accordions and fourteen guys in fringe jackets that is not even remotely me," says Tomás Cookman, president of Los Angeles-based Nacional Records, which is the label of Nortec Collective. "As horrible as it sounds," he begins, "[there are] too many important demos out there that you alienate."
Cardenas, the event marketer, believes the key obstacle is structural. "Every product has a regional [sales office]," he says. "You can't ignore Florida and New York because those offices will demand you pay attention to them."
Martin Fabian's response is that Miami doesn't much matter. Fabian is the plain-spoken and very direct CEO of LA-based Grupo Nueva Generación, which manages Grupo Montez de Durango, Los Horóscopos de Durango and Patrulla 81, among others. "Many people make it in Miami but only in Miami," says Fabian, whose Spanish bears the strong imprint of his native Monterrey, Mexico. "Miami is not the United States."
Joe Zubi, president of Miami-based Zubi Advertising, has used regional Mexican acts for his client American Airlines. He says it is a good deal, the client gets visibility at the concerts, and the band gets airline tickets in return. Still, he questions the value of broader deals with regional Mexican artists. "Their roots are based in tradition, which is positive from a moral perspective but it can give your brand an old fashioned feel." Albán-Gastelum of Axis concurs. "The roots of regional Mexican music are tied to a homeland, a lifestyle that is less assimilated."
Radio consultant Villareal has a more nuanced take on the matter. "People traditionally go back to their roots all the time, and you will find that even [Latinos] who are fully assimilated, who function daily in the Anglo world, especially when they are in the party mood they go back to the folk music. That is what [regional Mexican] is. It will always be there even with an assimilated and acculturated audience."
Still, he understands the resistance of certain brands and fingers the regional Mexican music's lack of appeal with the tween market. "Most companies want to reach or manipulate people as young as possible," Villareal says. "Pepsi wants you to start drinking Pepsi when you are young and impressionable. If I am 35 and drink Coke you are not going to change that. If I am 8, 9, 10, then I might be impressionable enough if I see Shakira drinking Pepsi."
Even allowing for the unproven concerns of alienating non-Mexicans and turning off Latino tweens it is difficult to account for the near-total absence of the most popular Latin music genre from marketing campaigns. That is, without resorting to awkward truths about the Hispanic advertising industry and the brands that keep them in business.
"Let's not bullshit ourselves. We are in it to make money [for the client and the agency], and it's that much better if the advertising is sexy and you can talk about it outside the industry," says Campos of Global Hue.
"If they were really smart and got over their own cultural baggage, advertisers would be very intelligent to use regional Mexican music," says Professor Cepeda. "Isn't advertising at the most basic level getting people to connect with the product? Someone is missing out on a lot of money."
Lupillo Rivera wonders aloud, "Maybe they aren't interested in selling any more [than they already do]."
Cookman, though, says most regional Mexican artists are unfazed by their neglect by marketers. "Yeah, they are all off in their ranch in Fresno or wherever it is they live. Counting their money and laughing at the rest of us [and dismissing those who ignore regional Mexican music] as ignorantes."