Why Understanding the Latino Market Pays Off

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U.S. Hispanic consumer purchasing power is currently at $1.2 trillion and growing. There are only 13 countries in the world which produce goods and services greater than the buying power of U.S. Latinos, and Hispanics are more apt to buy a new car than the general population.

"What you don't know can hurt you," says Jim Estrada in his book, "The ABCs and Ñ of America's Cultural Evolution," saying it's certainly true when it comes to the Latino market and community.

"We don't have many marketing people trained in cultural relevance, much less cultural competence," he said in an interview about his book.

Estrada, a former marketing manager for several companies including Anheuser-Busch and McDonald's, thinks many in the business world are missing crucial opportunities. A Nielsen study recently stated the future U.S. economy will depend on Hispanics "and the social and cultural shifts expected to accompany their continued growth."

“If you look at companies that lead in diversity, they are the most profitable. It is about adaptation to the marketplace.”

Cultural awareness is profitable, stressed Estrada. In Chicago, the largely Latino neighborhood of La Villita has become one of the city’s largest sources of sales tax revenue. In Los Angeles in 2005, first-generation immigrants founded 22 of the city's fastest-growing companies, some of which now have a national presence. These include the eateries El Pollo Loco and Panda Express and the retailer Forever 21. In New York City, foreign-born residents are nearly a third of the population, but represent almost half of the self-employed and entrepreneurs.

Ethnic marketing is an area of expertise that is sorely lacking in the United States, but several industries are doing it well, including the beverage and automotive industries, he said. “If you look at companies that lead in diversity, they are the most profitable. It is about adaptation to the marketplace,” Estrada said.

Jim Estrada, a former marketing manager for several companies, has written the book "The ABCs and Ñ of America's Cultural Evolution" to document Latino history and contributions to the U.S., which he said can help companies better market to Latinos.Patricia Guadalupe / for NBC News

Estrada makes an economic argument for more ethnic studies as a way to better understand different communities in the U.S. Some states have started to do this; on April 9, the Texas Board of Education voted to create high school ethnic studies elective courses.

Estrada says the courses should not be there just for ethnic communities to learn about their heritage.

"It’s more important for the non-ethnics who have to understand who we are if they want to sell us products, if they want to sell us services, if they want our support as political candidates [or] as municipal taxpayers," said Estrada. As Latinos have become the emerging workforce of this country, it’s relevant to everyone, Estrada said.

Greater "literacy" about the Latino community, Estrada insists, goes beyond advantages to U.S. companies looking to increase their markets. "If you’re an educator and don’t understand the culture of the students, you’re not going to be successful. If you’re in law enforcement and don’t understand the community you are protecting, you aren’t going to serve well. The same can be said for elected officials,” he said.

Estrada also makes an economic argument for more ethnic studies as a way to better understand different communities in the United States.

But just like non-Latinos can benefit from learning more about different cultures, Estrada says Latinos have to increase the attention paid to issues affecting their community. He warns against only focusing on immigration as an issue of importance to Hispanics.

“Our top priorities are economic development and education and we’re failing miserably in both categories," he said. “Latinos are doing what boxers call ‘underpunching.’ We’re not as strong as we could be."

Estrada is quick to remind that Latinos have a long history of proud achievements most people do not even know about. He cites the Army's 65th Infantry unit from Puerto Rico, one of the most decorated groups in the Korean War. He also cited Marcelino Serna, a Latino from El Paso who fought in World War I and is one of the most decorated soldiers in Texas history.

"There’s a tremendous amount of information about us that we ourselves have to begin to share," said the Latino marketer. “We let companies off the hook by virtue of not writing our own stories and educating our communities about the things we do and the things we’re going to do," Estrada said.