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The Real Hispanic Marketing Challenge: Willful Blindness

Every year Univision Communications Inc. (UCI) hosts a two-day gathering of marketers interested in amassing insights, tools and tactics to help launch or accelerate their organization’s Hispanic marketing efforts.  We call the event “Leading the Change.”

Many of the executives who attend this forum are lone wolves– the only employees at their companies dedicated to engaging the largest multicultural cohort in America. Their task is a big one.  You’re thinking their duties include: Developing Hispanic insights; creating Spanish-language ad campaigns; translating consumer websites; guiding culturally-relevant product development, etc.  And yes, they may have a hand in all of those things.

But before any of those tasks begin, these lone wolves must lead change; change in both thought and action, at every level, and across every department that touches the company’s marketing chain.  A recent study from Geoscape and the CMO Council found that when it comes to Hispanic strategies, 55% of marketers feel they lack buy-in from their CEO, and 60% say the same about their board of directors. In my job as the head of Sales Strategy and Communications for UCI, I have seen and heard dozens of Hispanic marketing case studies, and have noticed that in nearly every case the success story begins with buy-in from the organization’s senior-most executives.

With the well-documented data to support marketing to Hispanics as a crucial growth strategy, a perceptive person may surmise that the 50% to 60% of corporate officers who aren’t “buying in” must have an equally compelling pull against activating in Hispanic marketing.   Well, they do… and that is where our Leading the Change keynote speaker, Margaret Heffernan, comes in.  Her topic and the title of her award-winning book, Willful Blindness, captures perfectly the psychology behind that compelling pull.

Willful Blindness is a phenomena of human behavior in which our brain refuses to recognize, or see, a truth that is so obvious because it is simply too difficult to process, or it is in direct conflict with our prevailing model of how the world works.

In a 50-minute talk, Margaret Heffernan revealed:

  • The organizational and psychological forces that drive good, smart people to overlook or underestimate the information they most need
  • Why companies full of energetic, well-intentioned people fail to spot huge opportunities
  • Tactics to combat these forces

Through the telling of real-life stories, business cases, and hard facts from scientific studies, Heffernan proved that the biggest blunders in business occur not because of information that’s unavailable, but because of information we could see, should see — but choose not to see.

The reasons for this blindness are numerous. For example, over time, experience builds a mental model about how the world works and subconsciously that model directs our brain to latch on to the data that confirms our thoughts and to trivialize the outlying information that doesn’t quite fit.

Furthermore, studies show that time after time we gravitate towards those who are most like ourselves in both personal and work relationships. But, when we hire or collaborate with people similar to ourselves, we unwittingly reinforce our blind spots because these colleagues tend to value what we value and ignore the same information we ignore.

Working in a fast-paced, multi-tasking environment only exacerbates the ill effects of working with like-minded people.  Because in a “need-it-5-minutes-ago” society, our only choice is to rely on knowledge that is effortless—information with which we are most comfortable.  It takes a lot of brainpower and time to examine new information or get out of the “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset…time we think we don’t have.

In discussions with attendees after Heffernan’s presentation, Kristin Ballard, a marketing executive from Cox Automotive said it best: “People recognize that the Hispanic audience is a huge opportunity . . . but because we don’t know the best approach, we decide to just leave it alone for now.”

Unfortunately, leaving it alone will not lead to innovation and growth.

So how do we combat willful blindness in our own day-to-day thinking and operations?  Heffernan suggests:

  • Prioritize diversity on your team. Differences of thought, background, and culture are the real value we have to offer to each other. Ask questions that reveal the differences in your team members. You may be surprised at what you find.
  • Create a fear-free environment: a culture where employees are encouraged to share new ideas and divergent opinions without the anxiety of retribution or conflict. “Nobody has to ask permission to take responsibility.”
  • Set aside organized time to share ideas. Transforming a mediocre idea to a great one comes from sharing with others. A mandatory coffee break or a walk in the park with a colleague is not wasted time. “No one can predict where the next great idea will come from.”
  • Have the courage to challenge the prevailing model of how the world works. “Business as usual may be business as irrelevant.”

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