IN 1990, Honda was faced with a marketing problem: How could it break Chevrolet's stranglehold on the Hispanic-American community?
For the answer Honda turned to a relative newcomer in market research, Isabel Valdes.
Within four years, Ms. Valdes's Hispanic Market Connections helped push Honda's sales past Chevrolet's through the use of progressive research techniques and family-friendly Spanish-language commercials.
The Los Altos, Calif.,-based firm does market research for such heavyweights as General Foods and Citibank and has been called a ''major force behind the maturation of Hispanic market research in America'' by Hispanic Business magazine. The New York State Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce recently named Valdes ''Businesswoman of the Year.''
''My company has always grown because my clients have pushed me to succeed,'' says Valdes, a gregarious woman who originally started up the company in 1985 as a vehicle for paying the baby sitter.
''With Honda, we wanted to set up commercials that would redefine what the ideal car should look like to the Hispanic family,'' says Valdes, a Chilean immigrant who stresses she is part of the complex Hispanic market she is constantly trying to tap into.
Honda's Eric Conn says he learned from Valdes how to talk to this growing community in a culturally sensitive manner. ''Just as America has different groups by region, I learned from Valdes that the Hispanic community is not all Mexican and has its own unique vitality,'' says Mr. Conn, a vice president of the Torrance, Calif.,-based American Honda Motor Company.
Using quantitative data from Hispanic communities, Valdes found there was little interest in Honda products because the Chevy was ingrained in the minds of Hispanics as their ''flagship'' vehicle. Valdes suggested that Honda build roots in the Hispanic culture before bombarding it with flashy commercials.
First, Honda sponsored Mexico's renowned dance troupe, the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Only after 18 months of community projects did Honda focus on the mass media, says Conn. ''Our commercials showed the community that we understand the Hispanic way of life,'' says Conn. ''We wanted to avoid the stereotypical, mariachi [strolling band]-style advertising of, let's say, Chevrolet.''
VALDES, who with demographer Marta Seoane co-wrote the ''Hispanic Market Handbook'' (Gale Publishing), says that American companies are still using the same, dated stereotypes when advertising to the rapidly growing Hispanic community, already a $240 billion consumer market. ''One manufacturer, when describing the Hispanic-American market, told me 'big sombrero, no money,' '' Valdes says.
The rapid growth of the Hispanic market is a fact that Valdes repeatedly calls to the attention of her clients. The United States has the fourth largest Hispanic population in the world (24 million), behind Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina, notes Valdes, ''and much to people's surprise, Hispanics like myself are contributing to, and not detracting from, the country's economic base.''
Successful projects like Honda have established Hispanic Market Connections as a significant player in the Hispanic researching field, attracting clients in banking, the mass media, and government. Valdes ''has great passion for her culture and is among the top players in the Hispanic market,'' says Mara Covell, managing director of the New York-based Covell Communications, which publishes the Hispanic Market Report newsletter.
To penetrate specialized markets in America's increasingly diverse population, Valdes has developed such novel methods as Visual Icon Probing. ''Hispanics are visually oriented,'' explains Valdes. ''With Hispanic people, if they don't see the product visually they will not make the connection because some of them cannot read the words on the product.''
In terms of untapped markets, Valdes cites the importance of ''la familia'' to Hispanics. She herself is married to an Argentine and has two children. ''If you ever see Hispanics walking around, they move around in packs,'' she notes.
Valdes says it was a Ford Foundation grant that initially drew her to Stanford University in the mid-1970s. She planned to return to Chile after receiving her graduate degree in communications, but ended up staying.
After spending time working at other research companies, Valdes decided to branch out on her own. ''Like any good Silicon Valley company,'' adds Valdes with a smile, ''I started my company out of my garage.''