Code Switching and Your Brand: How the Latino/a Audience is Changing the Face of Marketing

The phenomenon of moving in between languages or dialects within the same sentence is becoming more and more prominent – especially in the marketing world. In both linguistic and social spaces, this phenomenon is called code switching.

Code Switching in the Real World

Code switching occurs more regularly in speech than in writing, but even the literary world is taking advantage of this linguistic trend, as in Junot Diaz’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novels or Eduardo Corral’s poetry, which recently won the Yale Younger Series of Younger Poets Award.

People who code switch can freely and seamlessly move between languages. For example, more and more people who grew up speaking a certain dialect, such as African American Vernacular English, are easily able to switch into “proper” formal English. With a Latin American audience, code switching refers more to what many of us know as Spanglish.

spanglish-movie

(Yes, just like the Adam Sandler movie.) In this type of code switching, bilingual Spanish and English speakers often mix Spanish words and phrases into English conversation – or vice versa.

Code Switching in the Marketing World

In marketing, code switching can also refer to using different written “dialects.” Many content marketing strategists opt to use a more conversational tone to reach the millennial demographic, including chat-speak or meme-inspired terms (think YOLO, Y U NO, and so on).

Why Code Switch?

There are a number of reasons why people might code switch when they communicate with each other. For example:

  • To say something in secret. There’s a reason why the word “code” is part of the term. In my own life, my dad will sometimes comment on the present situation in Spanish, because there’s a high likelihood that I’ll be the only one to understand him. In marketing, this is a great way to reach a specific audience and make them feel “in” on the joke.
  • To fit in. Oftentimes, we want to talk like the people around us. When I worked in urban education, I would often speak with students in “their” language to get on their level. In content marketing, code switching is a great way to make your brand seem relatable.
  • To convey a thought – Especially one that might not otherwise have been communicable. Native Spanish speakers often have to search for a word in English that occurs naturally to them in Spanish, so they choose instead to insert the Spanish word they already know. As part of a marketing strategy, code switching is a way of meeting this demographic halfway.

Code switching can serve numerous other purposes in content marketing, but the main purpose is humanizing a brand. Visitors to your site will respond not only as potential clients but, first and foremost, as human beings. These users should never be treated solely as “leads,” but rather as individual nuanced people with lives of their own. In this way, a brand can reach out to numerous specific generations of people throughout multiple distinct locations; all it comes down to is to know – and effectively use – their language.

Code Switching and a Latino/a Audience

Code switching is especially relevant to the growing Latino/a market, which is identifying more and more as “bicultural.” When it comes to minorities in the United States, identity is extremely important – and culture is a critical part of identity. In turn, language is an important part of culture.

The Spanish language is one of the most unifying components of the United States Latino/a market, because it keeps the demographic unified as a marketing target. With the increase of bicultural identity, however, the use of Spanglish as a means of code switching is becoming its own facet of this important demographic. Simply put: the Spanish language is not going away, but as Hispanic people are becoming acculturated in the US, Spanglish is also here to stay.

Spanglish and Your Marketing Strategy

Consider the difference between sweeping generalizations (i.e. “el marketing”) and well-researched, thoughtful code switching. To reiterate a point made in a blog I wrote last year, a thoughtless Spanglish label on your product or service may unintentionally play into racist stereotypes, which can be off-putting to potential consumers, including business owners.

Instead, the key is to listen to your audience – sometimes literally. One quote I came across in my research quotes a parent saying “Tengo que ir al bus stop para pick up mi hija” (I need to go to the bus stop to pick up my daughter). Talk about seamless integration of languages.

Latino/as currently represent the largest and most important ethnic demographic marketing target. Hispanic youth in the US make up a large portion of this target market. Check out the stats:

  • Around 20% of US teens (ages 12-19) are Hispanic
  • Almost 25% of babies born in the US are Hispanic
  • By 2020, it is predicted that around 24% of youth (up to age 19) will be Hispanic

In addition, these youth are also expected to be the most bicultural and, in turn, the most bilingual. As such, the “double influence” of both American English and Latin American Spanish is a large portion of what makes this market so desirable.

It can get complicated, though. Consider, for example, that most of these youth receive most of their content in English, whether through TV or the internet. But content type also influences language. Many of these young people also watch telenovelas in Spanish with their parents. Latino/a youth also spend a lot of time on social media, which is to say that word of mouth is a huge part of marketing to this demographic.

Successful Spanglish

The proof is in the pudding: Spanglish works, and major companies are taking advantage of it. Check out this Aflac recruitment ad:

aflac

This is an excellent example of Spanglish done right. The text, which translates to “As a bilingual Aflac agent, “tú” counts as two” – in which “tú” is “you.” The ad’s text is a bilingual pun in which “tú” and “two” are homonyms and also serve as a way to improve the self-esteem of Hispanic applicants to the company. The message is clear: bilingual agents count as two people, because they can communicate in two languages.

I have my own favorite examples of code switching in marketing, including Mattel’s ‘Toy Feliz, as well as Pizza Patrón’s seamlessly Spanglish website. Both of these marketing campaigns reach a specifically American Hispanic audience, which is now using phrases like “hanguear en el mol” (or “hang out” at the “mall”).

Bringing Success to Your Brand

Simply put, well done code switching works. It’s a great way to reach an audience that may have faced criticism for its way of speaking. Latino/as of all ages who have historically been criticized for integrating English and Spanish are now seeing their language reflected in content online, on TV, and more.

It all comes down to choosing language thoughtfully and carefully, remaining consistent, and, of course, doing the necessary research. When attempting to reach the Latino/a market, creativity is also a winner, as with the puns represented by Aflac and Mattel. As always, above all else, high quality, relatable content is key.

Have you ever thought about code switching in your marketing strategy? What has your brand done to reach out to Hispanic Americans?

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Tree

Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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