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Coco or Coconut? What a Film Can Tell Us About Hispanic Marketing

I’m certainly no film critic, but Pixar’s “Coco” is a uniquely powerful film that captures the heart of Mexican culture and all of its wonderful peculiarities in a universal story. Beyond its triumphant success at the box-office, the film also contains key insights for how marketing communicators can use precision and authenticity to connect with new audiences.

As a creative director and marketing strategist with more than 20 years of experience speaking to Hispanic audiences in the U.S., I’ve seen many brands portray the Mexican market in shallow and stereotypical ways. Marketers often try to connect with Hispanic audiences without really making the effort to understand the culture – and we can tell.

This isn’t the case with “Coco,” a film that depicts Mexican culture and traditions in a way that’s as close to reality as possible. It’s a story from the heart of Mexico, infused with thousands of small yet significant insights – very nuanced – that we as Hispanic-Americans experience every day. All of the clichés surrounding Mexican culture – mariachis, el día de los muertos, the big family, leaving home in search of something bigger and better, love of music, matriarchal family structure, the effort and sacrifice of parents for their children – they’re all there, and very real. But the film represents these familiar images and archetypes in a way that lifts the audience beyond the surface and into something essentially true about Mexican culture. In my opinion, it’s a masterpiece.

This is why, when we recently presented creative strategies and insights to one of the largest U.S.-based casual restaurant chains that also delivers, we included a comedic approach about being late as the reality is being late is an engrained part of Hispanic cultures.

“Coco” achieved a quality of connection with audiences that all marketers desire. The filmmakers did so by studying Mexican culture from the roots up, and by incorporating into the movie a struggle that’s both universal and central to Mexican culture at this point in American history: Transcending stereotypes and animosity.

Yesterday, I was listening to an American radio program on which the anchors were discussing the film. One of the hosts happened to be of Mexican descent, and he expressed his views on the film very articulately, until somebody asked him for the meaning of the word “Coco.” Confidently, he said that it’s the name of one of the main characters in the film. The American announcer asked again, but what does the word mean?

The Mexican host said, “Coco means coconut.”

At that moment, my breathing stopped and I cringed for a few seconds. He’s right that Coco translates to coconut. But he failed to see past the literal world and into the symbolic, where simple objects and concepts take on deeper meanings. After all, why would somebody name a daughter coconut?

My first thought was that this Mexican broadcaster has been out of Mexico for so long that he’s lost touch with his roots. Coco is the short version of the name Socorro. And it would make sense for somebody to name a daughter Socorro, because in Mexican culture this is the word we use to ask for help. The broadcaster’s mistake illustrates how important it is for communicators to go beyond the surface when trying to connect with other cultures.

“Coco” is a great example of how to communicate with emotion, authenticity, and precision. The filmmakers did their homework. If brands make the effort to understand Hispanic cultures at a deeper level, their messages will be truthful and direct. Their messages will be felt, not simply heard.

“Coco” represents storytelling at the highest level, and it’s a blueprint for how marketers can communicate successfully in ways that rise beyond audience expectations.

Five stars to “Coco”.

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