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Scotiabank has identified Hispanic Canadians as an important growth market, especially for its StartRight bank accounts, which are tailored to the needs of newcomers.Scotiabank

When there's a gold rush on, smart people look for silver.

In the last few years, Canadian marketers have been retooling their organizations to target newcomers to the country. Ethnic media are bursting with ads targeting Chinese, Filipino and South Asian immigrants. (Or at least as bursting as media outlets are these days.) But there's another group of newcomers, all but unknown and ignored, that some people believe present a sweet opportunity to savvy companies willing to learn another language: Hispanic-Canadians.

"Latin America is the fourth-largest source of immigration to Canada," said Fabiola Sicard, the Toronto-based director of Latin markets for Bank of Nova Scotia, who is charged with convincing new Hispanic-Canadians to open accounts at her bank. On Wednesday evening, Ms. Sicard told a meeting of the Toronto Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that the number of immigrants from Latin American countries jumped by 121 per cent from the five-year periods of 1996-2000 to 2001-2006.

That much, at least, is known. But in sharp contrast to the U.S., where the Hispanic community is a 50 million-strong economic and political force that marketers study intently, their Canadian counterparts are practically invisible.

Chalk it up, said Ms. Sicard, to three obstacles: Hispanic-Canadians are a smaller market than other immigrant communities, they are geographically fragmented (stretching from the Venezuelan oil workers in Lethbridge, Alta., to IT professionals in Oakville, Ont., to dentists in Montreal), and there is almost no significant research that delves into their unique needs. Making matters worse, the eradication of Statistics Canada's long-form census last year means the one half-decent source of information that marketers depended on is now gone.

But what little research exists suggests the Hispanic market – which numbers between 600,000 and 1.2 million, depending on the definition – is not just its own unique beast, but a valuable one.

Ms. Sicard presented Statscan data suggesting that, in contrast to the U.S. Hispanic community – which is stigmatized by its large proportion of illegal immigrants who have few English skills and a paucity of formal education – almost 50 per cent of Hispanic Canadians have at least a bachelor's degree; another 12 per cent have a non-university diploma.

Which is why Scotiabank is making them a priority. While most Canadian banks provide special services to newcomers, from flexible accounts to Welcome Guides that provide basic information about citizenship, geography, customs and traditions, Ms. Sicard's employer has identified Hispanic Canadians as an important growth market, especially for its StartRight bank accounts, which are tailored to the needs of newcomers.

But rather than using mainstream media to reach them, the bank is marketing at the grassroots, through professional associations, street festivals, and blogs aimed at people living in Latin American countries who are mulling a move north.

"We are targeting the Philippine and Hispanic community as well as the Chinese and South Asian communities," Ms. Sicard said. "And guess what? We have more StartRight customers who speak Tagalog and Spanish than Mandarin or Punjabi. So the opportunity's huge, because nobody's targeting them, and everybody's after the Chinese and South Asians."

Still, there are reasons for caution.

"Chinese and South Asian are still the predominant groups," said Bobby Sahni, the head of multicultural marketing for Rogers Communications Inc., who also addressed the THCC meeting. "So from a marketer's perspective, obviously you're going for scale, you're trying to cover your big wins. That's just the reality of any marketing – whether it's multicultural, mass mainstream, or whatever – you want to get the biggest bang for your buck."

But by focusing on the big fat targets, nimble marketers may be missing out on other opportunities. Ms. Sicard noted that, while Hispanics make up approximately 10 per cent of Canadian immigrants on an annual basis, they are overrepresented in Quebec, where they make up 20 per cent of immigrants.

"Within Montreal, it's easier to target the Latin community," Ms. Sicard said. "There, we offer a mortgage seminar in Spanish, 150 people show up. We don't get that many attendees for our seminars in French or English. So that's a big hit, just to provide it in Spanish."

Best of all, she says, the Hispanic community is culturally cohesive, so marketers can avoid the pitfalls they encounter when trying to target other groups that may be riven by divisions. "You have a lot of people from Africa and the Middle East, but there are so many conflicts between them that it's difficult to target and not offend another group. The advantage with Latinos in Montreal is that, just by marketing in Spanish, you cover them all and you don't get in trouble."

The Wednesday discussion included much breast-beating about the low profile of the Hispanic community in Canada. "We're invisible," complained Eduardo Uruena, founder and president of the local newspaper Diario El Popular. "It hurts."

It may be that, before marketers pay attention to Hispanic-Canadians, the community is going to have to get better at marketing itself.

"When many of the Australian wines were starting to become popular in Canada, instead of Wolf Blass or Yellowtail or these different companies trying to take on the entire market and trying to build the profile and the brand of their wine alone, they actually unified and worked together to build the profile of Australian wines collectively," Mr. Sahni noted.

"In the same case, whether it's Hispanic media or Hispanic businesses – instead of trying to go at it on your own, I think there's a lot of opportunity to work together."

Until they do, they'll be either invisible or mischaracterized. A few years ago, the mainstream Tex-Mex food brand Old El Paso aired an ad featuring Francesco Quinn (the Italian-born son of actor Anthony Quinn) laying on a thick Spanish accent while surrounded by chickens in a living room. It didn't go over well among Hispanic-Canadians. "We are not that," said Ms. Fabiola curtly. "There's not a single Latin person I've asked about that ad who's not mad about it."

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