From Selena to millenials, Latinos continue to shape the American marketing landscape

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As the Smithsonian enshrines the singer's artifacts, a look at how the industry has changed.

Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez is an icon of the highest order, still beloved by millions of fans across the world more than 20 years after an estranged friend murdered her in 1995. She is less remembered for having forever changed the Latino advertising market. But like her lasting influence on music and Latino culture, her status as one of the first Latino spokespeople for a major American brand—Coca-Cola—and her impact on how advertisers treated Latinos remain strong parts of her legacy.

Starting this week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history will permanently display artifacts that tell the story of how she shaped the course of Latino advertising. Part of the museum’s permanent exhibition "American Enterprise," which documents the ever-shifting landscape of American business, the display features artifacts from a 1994 Coca-Cola campaign starring Selena and developed by Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar & Associates, which was at the time the most prominent Latino-focused firm in the U.S.

"Selena was a unique, massive talent who wanted to help people, and was very proud to be Mexican-American, and having a spokesperson like that was a big deal for a brand," said Jeff Beck, senior director of culture and strategy at cross-cultural agency the community. "At that time, brands wanted to identify specific groups and plant a flag to say, ‘We back these people, we know these people are incredibly important.’"

So, Coca-Cola hired a beloved star whose prominent Latino identity was instantly recognizable and relatable. Selena represented the brand from 1989 until her death, solidifying Latinos as major players in the U.S. consumer market. But, said Beck, things have changed a lot since then. If Selena ushered in the second wave of Latino marketing—the one where Latinos started to really run things—we’re now in a third wave, and it’s a lot more complex.

"Latinos want to see more than a surface level of cultural understanding—it’s not enough to say that your target is Hispanics, since that’s 60 million people," he said. Instead, brands need to understand that being Latino is just one part of a multifaceted identity. "There are groups of Hispanics for whom that identity might be the sixth most important thing to them in terms of how they identify. People want to be understood on a lot of different layers."

Failing to acknowledge those layers can result in embarrassing gaffes that tank a brand’s credibility. One of the worst happened during the 2015 campaign, when Hillary Clinton made a major misstep by releasing a list of "7 things Hillary has in common with your abuela." It flattened Latino family ties into vague stereotypes and the internet immediately lambasted her. She ended up alienating a core group of voters instead of connecting with them.

Instead, be more like Target, says Beck: their recent push to market to Latinos uses spots with diverse casting and peppy music that don’t specifically reference Latino culture. "It’s great work, and any Latino would love it, but you don’t just love it because you’re Latino," he said.

He also cited the community’s work with Verizon as an example of how to avoid oversimplificaiton or stereotyping. "We created a campaign that tapped into acknowledging that bicultural millenial Hispanics"—who Beck says are the most culturally influential group in the country—"want to be understood as a lot of different things. The message was that, as the strongest network, Verizon is able to connect you to them all."

There will likely never be another Selena, both because she was a unique talent, but also because Latino influence on American culture is so deep and diffuse that a single person can no longer represent all of it in a marketing campaign.

"At that time, the conversation was about how Hispanics are acculturating to the U.S.," said Beck. Now, songs in Spanish top the charts and native speakers represent 15 percent of the population. Instead of treating Latinos as a niche within America, advertisers have begun to understand that America is instead becoming part of that niche.