¿Y Qué? It Matters That Biculturalism is Not News in Puerto Rico

November 16, 2014

Posted by Javier San Miguel

What’s in a jelly doughnut? Nothing special. Even if it’s a Krispy Kreme doughnut filled with queso and guava. Yet if this flavor were promoted in Los Angeles, it would carry some form of eye-rolling publicity predictably touting its Latino cultural mix. Thank goodness Krispy Kreme already sells this tasty confection in the one region of the U.S. where such publicity is moot, because cultural duality is pretty much an afterthought.

You’ll just have to get on a plane to Puerto Rico to taste it.

Biculturalism is nothing new for Puerto Ricans, which is why Latino-targeted campaigns self-consciously based on bicultural concepts like Volkswagen Passat’s notable 2012 “Vámonos” spot feel somewhat old hat to us. Industry watchers were quick to praise that commercial’s initial sleight-of-hand, opening as an Anglo General Market spot but paying off as something unexpectedly different. It’s just that for most Puerto Ricans, starting a sentence in English and finishing it in Spanish is so—1970?s.

Full disclosure: I’m a child of that decade, born and raised on the island through high school graduation, when it was not uncommon for local radio to mix tunes from Puerto Rican mega band El Gran Combo, Cuba’s Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz, and Spanish songbird Paloma San Basilio in random rotation with Anglo Top 40 favorites like Olivia Newton-John, Ozzy Osbourne, Fleetwood Mac, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, the Bee Gees and KISS (and yes, we’d also listen to Casey Kasem’s weekly radio countdown with religious fervor). There wasn’t one multi-format station on the dial, but several—all of which competed fiercely for listeners’ ears with freewheeling, sometimes Spanglish-speaking DJs (most notably Salsoul 98, KQ105, Fidelity 95.5 and Sistema 102). Puerto Ricans did not listen to music in silos four decades ago, nor do we now. And we did not consume other media in culturally regimented fashion. Family TV favorites included an equally eclectic mix of Puerto Rican TV shows like Los García and En Casa de Juanma y Wiwi, Cuban themed shows like Qué Pasa, U.S.A., Mexican shows like El Chavo del Ocho and Chapulín Colorado, and Anglo classics like Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet(thank you, cable). And despite being a Spanish-dominant island, all Hollywood movies released within our shores would play with original English soundtracks and accompanying Spanish subtitles (opposite from the rest of Latin America and Spain, which typically ran Spanish-dubbed soundtracks).

Admittedly, most international audiences can claim a certain level of biculturalism with the U.S. using pop culture criteria. Hollywood’s influence extends worldwide. But unlike folks from any other part of the globe, generations of Puerto Ricans have been indelibly shaped by their unique status as full U.S. citizens inhabiting an island with its own distinct national culture and dominant Spanish language—U.S. territorial status notwithstanding. This creates a very different type of “bicultural” consumer. And it provides a compelling case study for brands eager to derive (and possibly predict) emerging consumer insights within the majority Hispanic segment in the U.S. that is neither Puerto Rican nor Caribbean in origin.

Puerto Ricans are fearless. Not only brand savvy, but also adept at maximizing the financial tools that provide households of even modest incomes with greater purchasing power. Credit cards, 401K and IRA accounts? Check, check, check. Federal benefits like food stamps, unemployment, welfare and the Earned Income Tax Credit? We know all about them and take full advantage. We’ve had access to these goodies decades ahead of our more recently arrived Latin American counterparts, through our island’s U.S.-based economy and government. So it makes sense for us to be the most mature Hispanic consumer segment in the U.S. We got a head start on el resto del mundo.

But our fearlessness isn’t merely rooted in early access to financial and federal tools. There’s a certain kind of disposition you develop when you live, are educated in, and work where everybody looks and talks like you. Police officers, doctors, lawyers, judges, business owners, celebrities, community and political leaders, chefs, waiters, taxi drivers—the full spectrum of society at all socioeconomic levels on the island—are all Puerto Rican (with significant numbers of Cuban and Dominican expats thrown in for good measure). We are our own ethnic majority. So we don’t grow up feeling like perpetual interlopers in an otherwise Anglo environment, “outnumbered and oppressed” by a different cultural ruling class. And we still enjoy the sundry benefits of full U.S. citizenship. We qualify for federal student aid, so we can attend any U.S. college we gain acceptance to. For that matter, we can fly to and from the mainland with state-to-state ease, get a driver’s license, vote, pursue or accept employment in any of the 50 states or territories, even run for public office, and though we travel with the freedom and security of a U.S. passport, we can still keep our own Olympic team and Miss Universe contestant (a subject of near critical national importance).

In short, we get to have our bizcocho, and eat it too.

This breeds savvy, discriminating and, yes, entitled consumers. Island cultures are insular by definition. So as the center of our own universe, we reflexively understand our own purchasing power and expect only the best at our disposal (if we don’t get it, we’ll find the work-around). This also means we don’t require cultural pandering in our advertising to make purchase decisions, because we don’t fear losing our culture. Many major brands understand this and have subsequently treated Puerto Rican consumers as a separate segment with its own specialized marketing approach—different from the broader U.S. Hispanic segment. So ad campaigns in Puerto Rico are seldom self-conscious about their multiculturalism, the way Latino-targeted campaigns are on the mainland. Island advertising is just bicultural by nature. It’s a given.

And this leads to an interesting question: As greater numbers of Central and South American immigrants assimilate into the U.S., will they evolve as Puerto Rican consumers have (and will advertising follow)?

The answer merits a closer look at life on the island (I should note the following examples are merely broad in stroke and only paint a partial picture). A visit to capital city San Juan today reveals a surprisingly sophisticated and eclectic consumer marketplace that feels distinctly different to the rest of the United States, yet also quite familiar—underscoring why Puerto Rican consumers are notoriously hard to pin down. Walk into Plaza Las Américas (at 1.8 million square feet of retail space, the largest shopping mall in Caribbean and second largest in all Latin America), and witness radically different retailers in harmonious coexistence. Ann Taylor and Valija. Brooks Brothers and Playero. David Yurman and Arte Religioso. Carolina Herrera and Hecho a Mano. The Cheesecake Factory and El Mesón. Local supermarket shelves carry most brand offerings from the likes of Kraft, Kellogg’s, General Mills and Coca-Cola adjacent local favorites like Goya, Lotus, Holsum, Rovira and Malta India. And a stop by even the most modest roadside liquor establishments displays one of the most discerning beer markets in the world. Among the head-spinning array of beer brands enjoyed by Puerto Ricans, you’ll find Heineken, Grolsch, Labatt, Coors Light, Blue Moon, Brooklyn, Carib, Colt 45, Magic Hat, MGD 64, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite, Keystone, Leinen Kugels, Peroni, Schaefer, Sierra Nevada, Stella Artois, Sharp, Medalla, Presidente, Sam Adams, Corona Extra, Modelo, Tecate and Milwaukee’s Best. The list goes on.

Does this sound like a second-generation Mexican-American’s brand preferences?

I’m willing to bet it will begin to sound similar—and sooner than most think—particularly in a minority majority metropolis like Los Angeles where Latinos increasingly assert political and economic dominance at all levels of society (Don’t believe it? Just ask Miami). Marketers looking to forecast the bicultural “next” in the U.S. should pay attention the Puerto Rican precedent. We’ve been there and done it. And we’ve got a pretty tasty Krispy Kreme doughnut to prove it.

Savor local flavors. Krispy Kreme’s Puerto Rican doughnuts are perfectly typical.

By Javier San Miguel
Associate Creative Director

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