The Curious Case of Puerto Rico Within the Marketing Landscape

The U.S. territory occupies a unique middle ground between those two distinct worlds

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This article is part of the Hispanic and Latin American Voices in Adweek series, which will cover the different nuances and challenges within this community.

In today’s industry, segmentation and regionalization are vital planning tools for all marketers … but what happens when it’s unclear exactly to which region or segment your target actually belongs?

For over 120 years, the archipelago of Puerto Rico has occupied a curious place in American society.

Officially known as the Commonwealth (or Estado Libre Asociado in Spanish) of Puerto Rico, its relationship has been a complicated one due to its colonial nature. Puerto Ricans carry American passports but are unable to vote in Presidential elections while living on the island. They have a representative in Congress, but that representative has no vote. This limbo status of being “foreign in a domestic sense” has influenced Puerto Rico’s relationship not only with the US, but with Latin America as well.

This relationship has led many to see Puerto Rico as the Caribbean extension of the U.S. Hispanic market. For others, it remains a distinctly Latin American market, with customs and cultures that are closer to those of the Caribbean, Central and South America, rather than North America. Still, for many others, Puerto Rico occupies a unique middle ground between those two distinct worlds (either “the gateway to Latin America” or “the gateway to the U.S.” depending on which region you are coming from).

But how does this present itself from a marketers perspective? And what can we learn from such a curious case?

The answer really lies in who you ask. We spoke to several brand and advertising executives to see how they view the curious case of Puerto Rico.

General market vs. Hispanic market

I believe Puerto Rico is its own microcosm, drawing influence from the U.S. business culture and LatAm culture, and making it our own … It is “easy” to say Puerto Rico should be lumped with LatAm because of the language but our business culture has been influenced by the years as a commonwealth, so the U.S. influence cannot be discounted. In Puerto Rico, we are the ‘general market’ and here we are part of the Hispanic market.

“I still joke that I did not know I was Hispanic or Latina until I moved to the States! So many U.S. companies used to send their marketing staff to Puerto Rico for 1-2 years stints (many fell in love with the island and stayed), so that has had a profound influence on how we do business there.” Ingrid Otero-Smart, president/CEO, Casanova/McCann.

Hispanic but not in the same way as other U.S. Hispanics

Puerto Ricans on the island are not Hispanic in the same way that we think of Hispanics as a segment in the U.S. While there are many shared values and, of course, a shared language, their distinct cultural identity is very different from the immigration-unifier that is shared by Hispanics ‘on the mainland.’

“We believe strongly that specificity drives authenticity and marketers should be cautious not to lump Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico together with U.S. efforts since the identity drivers and barriers of one whole may not necessarily translate to the other. More importantly, the Puerto Rican identity creates many unique opportunities for marketers to connect on a more meaningful level.” Angela Rodriguez, svp, head of strategy, ALMA

Different values, different punchlines

The biggest differentiation of Puerto Rico from both the USA and LATAM is our idiosyncrasy. As marketers, we need to carve out a communication strategy that is unique.

“Puerto Ricans don’t understand the jokes or punchlines that would resonate in Colombia or Mexico and most of our citizens aren’t fully bilingual, so the U.S. Hispanic campaigns don’t function on the island. Here we talk Spanglish—we are Latinos who have something extra and that is the U.S. approach towards consumerism.” Alan Taveras, CMO, Brand of Puerto Rico

The vast majority of Puerto Ricans think that Puerto Rico is actually the last colony on earth. Although that’s perceived as a fact, it’s also true that the majority of Puerto Ricans value the relationship with the U.S. and the citizenship it brings. On the other hand, Puerto Ricans also value their Hispanic culture and the Spanish language so the whole thing is complicated.

“That uniqueness translates entirely to advertising. Our market is extremely unique and the brands that perform better in it are the ones that recognize that and localize their strategies based on that uniqueness. To treat us like the Hispanic market or LATAM has always been a big risk for advertisers.” Jaime Rosado, owner and CCO, RosadoToledo&.

A ‘niche of a niche’

“I see the Puerto Rico market as ‘the Hispanic market of the Hispanic market.’ For some strange reason, it is a market that has been isolated and in a way it’s a niche of a niche, while it should be looked at as a mainstream opportunity. Puerto Rico is a vibrant, dynamic and growing opportunity. Both the local industry and the U.S. Hispanic industry should make an effort of integration looking for synergies and combined efforts. It’s in everybody’s best interests!” Luis Miguel Messianu, founder/creative chairman/CEO, ALMA.

As we can see, the view of Puerto Rico’s place within the regional marketing landscape is as diverse and nuanced as the Boricuas themselves. What remains true, however, is that for those marketers (whether from the U.S. or LATAM) who prioritize specificity and local culture, “La Isla del Encanto” and the wider cultural market will continue to hold endless opportunity.