ACCULTURATION: Convenient Market-speak Handle, Completely Misunderstood Word

By Juan Faura (

If you have an even nodding acquaintance with marketing to the US Hispanic market, you have undoubtedly heard, used or in some form come across the term ‘Acculturation’.  It is most often used to define where an individual is in the process of going from recent arrival to established resident.  Sometimes the  term is used interchangeably with the term ’assimilation’, something that is a huge mistake.  While ‘assimilation’ is a linear dynamic where an individual picks up a new culture while steadily drifting away from their country of origin culture.  This was what happened to the Irish and the Italians in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Acculturation is a fluid process through which an individual adopts elements of the new culture while still maintaining their country of origin culture.  It is a continuous process that an individual will go through at varying rates of adoption in specific life situations.  In other words it is not a static process, but a continuous process that varies depending on many other circumstances present throughout an individuals development and growth.

The problem is that most marketing professionals charged with helping clients to capture the US Hispanic market position it as a static element of segmentation of the US Hispanic market.  In most instances the idea is that acculturation is the primary basis for a segmentation of the market.  Each segment of the model is based on an all-encompassing definition of acculturation.  Whole media plans and strategic briefs are based on how ‘acculturated’ the intended market is.  Language fluency, educational level, socioeconomic status are all parts of the segmentation process and all are then considered relative to where on the acculturation process an individual is.  The bigger problem lies in the fact that the acculturation base these segmentation models are based on is a static one.  Individuals are placed on a specific place in the acculturation timeline regardless of the category being considered.  In other words, once an individual is found to be unacculturated or partially acculturated they are considered to be so whether the category being considered is automobiles or detergent or computers.  Acculturation is seemingly a transcendental definition that encompasses all marketing considerations.  This, in my opinion, is one of if not the biggest problem with Hispanic marketing theory today.

After 10 years if conducting research among Hispanics of all socioeconomic backgrounds, educational levels, age ranges and categories ranging from laundry detergent to Mercedes Benz I have come to the ultimate conclusion that the level of acculturation depends on the category you are considering.  The level and rate of acculturation is different when you are talking about a Mercedes Benz than when you are talking about beer.

The epiphany came while I was doing research on a particular retail store.  It was an ethnography and the interviews were conducted at each respondent’s office or home.  The woman I was interviewing was a PR executive with a telecomm company.  Throughout the interview her responses placed her squarely in the unacculturated segment for me.  Her views on family, language, culture all fit the definition already established for an unacculturated consumer.  As the interview moved along her responses affirmed my assessment.  After finishing the interview relative to the study’s category the conversation began to drift into the realm of sexuality (don’t ask me how, I’ve tried to remember and I simply can’t)  Given her previously stated views it seemed completely out of character for her to be engaging in the conversation, let alone saying the things she was saying.  She believed in complete sexual freedom of expression, in being able to pursue one’s sexual fantasies without the fear of being persecuted or being thought of as a promiscuous individual.  This led to a discussion of how the definition of family was now much more fluid and open than it had been in the past and that just because a family did not fit the traditional definition of family it did not mean that the relationships were any less real.  In short, the subsequent conversation made me rethink whether she was in fact unacculturated based on the definition I had already established.  It became clear that when discussing the category the study was meant to address the respondent fit the definition of an unacculturated consumer, but when discussing the topic of sex she went 180 degrees and fit squarely into the acculturated category.  After this interview I began to pursue the theory with other respondents in other studies and found the same to be true.  The fact was that the level of acculturation was specific to the category being discussed, it was not in fact static, but rather it was a fluid element of the segmentation process.  After refining the process of developing an actionable model a lot of things became very clear, the biggest being that to continue using acculturation as a static baseline risked developing a segmentation model that was not reflective of the target consumers.  Unlike language fluency, years in the US, educational level and socioeconomic background, segmentation elements that are in fact static across categories, acculturation was specific to the category being considered.

Today acculturation is still being used as a the unmoving base of a majority of the segmentation models out there.  If thought of in a visual context, current models would appear as a single continuum with Unacculturated being at one end and Acculturated being at the other, a static and linear model that is simply not reflective of the way consumers evolve.

Categories: NGLC Conference

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