It was an underdog battle that retailers are still trying to win.
The 1862 Battle of Puebla, during which a sorely outnumbered Mexican army defeated the French, has been recognized in the U.S. as Cinco de Mayo for decades. It is in fact more widely celebrated in the U.S. than in Mexico.
But it’s been more recent that U.S. retailers have tried to gain profit from the holiday. Grocery sales of items such as tortilla chips, salsa and fajita sauce alone were projected to exceed $120 million, up a combined 40%, in 2017, the most recent year Nielsen ran figures. That does not account for the boosted sale of alcohol, limes and avocadoes, the latter of which saw a 45% increase in unit sales (66 million) in the week ending May 6, 2018.
However, there have been some embarrassing missteps over the years, especially among merchants that sell products not remotely Mexican. Capitalizing off another culture’s milestone is a delicate undertaking. The fact that the U.S. Hispanic population, of which the majority is Mexican, rose to 59 million in July 2017 from 50.5 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census, contributes to the need to better understand the history behind this date.
So let’s start. Following are four essential “dos” that shoppers should expect from brands promoting the holiday, with examples of major Cinco de Mayo fails.
- Demonstrate an understanding of the holiday. Respect earns trust, and loyalty. Retailers that recognize Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of Mexican solidarity and passion will likely foster deeper connections with all consumers. This starts at the employee level — a little training on the meaning of Cinco de Mayo could go a long way. Merchants can further deepen customer connections by using a portion of their proceeds to benefit Mexican organizations and causes.
What not to do: Turn the holiday into a misunderstood excuse to sell stuff. In 2013, Victoria’s Secret suffered social media blowback after promoting T-shirts with phrases such as “Let’s no taco ‘bout it.”
- Be authentic about the food. We’ve come far enough in America to appreciate true Mexican food and culture. This doesn’t mean banning the shelves of taco shells and margarita mix, but Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity for supermarkets to promote authentic dishes and the ingredients to make them. “Did you know” signage in the international food sections of stores could highlight the role of such ingredients.
What not to do: Make ethnic food American. In 2015, Hellmann’s mayonnaise promoted a recipe for guacamole that included a helping of the American condiment but made no reference to Mexican culture. Instead, it promoted the recipe with a tweet, “putting the mayo in #cincodeMAYO.”
- Rise above stereotypes and appropriations. The term “Cinco de drinko” is not original, and shoppers are likely to appreciate those brands that rise above such clichés. Instead of seeing Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to get cute, merchants could use social media to embrace the culture through prize-winning quizzes, Mexican fast facts and legitimate party-planning influencers.
What not to do: Dust off and don decade’s old stereotypes. SweetFrog Frozen Yogurt of Virginia dresses its frog character up in a sombrero and poncho for its annual “Cinco de froyo” event, during which it gives “a sweet nod to the celebratory spirit of Cinco de Mayo.” Unfortunately, it does not explain what the celebration is about.
- Choose holiday items wisely, and stock up. This is basic consumerism 101. Shoppers who want to genuinely celebrate Cinco de Mayo expect the goods to be available and, in the case of food, fresh. Produce should be ripe and ready to use, or retailers risk the chance of being viewed as disrespectful or clueless (ever try to make guacamole with a stone-hard avocado?). Anything stocked specifically for the holiday should be considered with the end user in mind.
What not to do: The jury is still out on this one, but grocery chain The Fresh Market on May 1 began selling Amanti Guacamole Cheese. The combination of avocado and gouda cheese blends the Dutch art of cheesemaking with Mexico’s tenacious history, for American consumption.
Lastly, retailers should recognize that Mexican culture is an important, long-standing part of American heritage. Those that want to win shopper loyalty throughout the year would benefit from incorporating the motivations behind events such as Cinco de Mayo into their day-to-day business cultures.