(ALMOST) Lost in Translation

Article by:
Jeff Cohn, EO Colorado
Jeff Cohn
EO Colorado

Jeff Cohn is the Founder of Cohn Marketing, a firm that provides clients with strategic branding, marketing, advertising, PR and web/online solutions that maximize marketing results. Jeff can be reached at [email protected].

I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. I know how to order a drink and ask for hot salsa, but that’s as far as it goes. And yet, two years ago my Colorado-based marketing and public relations firm found itself handling the largest shopping center and mall management company in Puerto Rico. I knew one thing was for certain: I needed to brush up on my Spanish.

Our big break came in 2005. One of our biggest domestic clients hired an agency in Puerto Rico to handle their local marketing. Together, the company and agency launched an island-wide branding and gift card program that significantly underperformed. As a result, our client asked if we could take on the portfolio. I immediately saw an immense opportunity for growth but decided not to mention my lack of language skills. Or that my knowledge of Puerto Rico was limited to the island’s best golf courses. 

There was a ton of pressure, largely internal, to do the best job possible. When they approached me about it, I was somewhat uncomfortable because I didn’t have all of the business tools I needed to move ahead with authority. That’s not a good feeling. I knew we had the experience and talent to fix the client’s problem; however, there was one major issue: creating marketing campaigns that will work in another part of the world requires an understanding of the people, the place and the culture. How could Denver folk create ads that would be effective and culturally consistent in Puerto Rico? We needed the right resources.

Fortunately, a friend put me in touch with a multicultural marketing consultant. Raised and educated in Venezuela, her extensive marketing background in Latin America was just what we needed. We hired her to consult on the massive project. As we gathered the Puerto Rico agency’s files, we came to the conclusion that their plan was not going to be profitable, no matter the language.

With our consultant’s expertise and my company’s industry background, we crafted a bold plan that went beyond their original marketing program. Our plan completely rethought the way the client brands its 15 shopping centers, which led to increased gift card sales and improved financial performance. Ultimately, we developed a new advertising and public relations campaign that reflected the culture of “La Isla” (The Island) and captured the true essence of the people.

The client loved the program, brand strategy and creative energy. They also respected our consultant. We were so successful that the firm tapped us to manage all of the marketing and public relations from Denver.

As a result of this project, I learned a tremendous amount about the Puerto Rican culture and  about the broader Latino culture in the US markets and other countries. For example, Latinos in Puerto Rico are not the same as Latinos in Denver, Colorado, USA, Mexico or Chile. Too many businesses cater to the broad Latino market without taking into account the dramatic cultural differences among Spanish speakers. My consultant uses the world “acculturate,” which means you can’t consistently reach the Hispanic market unless you understand its complexities.

Working in Puerto Rico has taken my company in new directions and expanded our business horizons. Thanks to this experience, we learned that if we take the time to do it right, it can be muy impresionante. See? I’ve even learned some more Spanish.

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