In Spanish, like in other languages like Japanese or Polish, there’s are “levels” of respect when addressing other people.

Expressing different levels of respect in Spanish is very straightforward: when addressing someone in[pullquote align=”right”]Deciding between “tú” and “usted” is a critical decision. It needs to be made early, at the strategy definition stage.[/pullquote] an informal way, in most countries including Mexico the word for “you” is “tú.” . In other countries, like Argentina or Guatemala the word is “vos.” In formal conversations, the usual word is “usted.”

However, these are not rigid norms. In Colombia, for instance, the word “usted” is used among close friends. In other countries, you may address friends as “usted” lightheartedly, to downplay the informality of the relationship.

While in the English language there are no informal and formal flavors of “you,” it’s interesting how the language gets around that by using “sir” or “m’am” to convey respect.

Of course, there’s the incredibly valuable “y’all” when you need to make it clear that you’re referring to more than one person.

When doing Hispanic marketing consulting work for clients, the “Tú or Usted” question is usually asked very early in the process. And a very good question it is: When it comes to Hispanic marketing in Spanish, the decision of whether to use “tú” or “usted” is a critical one. It needs to be made very early, ideally at the strategy definition stage.

The “tú” vs. “usted” decision will drive many elements of the communication: from the copy and the visuals on the ads, to the content of the direct marketing pieces and the way phone reps will talk to customers.

There are three elements to consider when deciding between “tú” and “usted”, or what we call the “ABC”:

  • Audience: As a rule of thumb, if you’re targeting a younger audience, you should use the informal tone (tú). For older audiences, usted. Also, for audiences with higher income and educational levels, we tend to use usted.
  • Brand: What is the voice of your brand? This is unique to each marketer. More approachable, informal brands use tú, while more upscale, serious brands use usted.
  • Category: For more “serious” categories, like financial services, healthcare or high ticket items, usted is more commonly used. For less formal categories (like fast food, candy or soft drinks), tú is more common.

It’s easy to see those factors at work when observing different brands in the same category. For instance, while in the credit card category American Express uses usted, Visa uses tú. Other examples are Toyota (tú) vs. Mercedez Benz (usted) or JetBlue (tú) vs. American Airlines (usted).

Another important decision is whether communications targeting the Latino market should mirror the tone used for the non-Hispanic market. This also depends on the specific situation and it’s defined by the strategy.

For instance, a couple of years ago we did a Hispanic advertising project for Dignity Memorial, the largest provider of funerary services in the US.

The general market campaigns that the company runs are informal. And this make sense: the target is Baby Boomers who want to express their individuality until the very last moment (“I want to play the Beach Boys in my funeral”).

In the Hispanic culture, however, the way to react and process the loss of a loved one is very different. In consequence, the meaning of the funeral is different as well.  This of course affects the entire purchasing process.

So we decided to take a more formal, unemotional approach to the brand, appealing to responsibility and the importance of avoiding unnecessary distress to your loved ones. Our favorite headline: “Cómo seguir siendo el hombre de la casa cuando ya no esté en su casa” (“How to still be the man of the house after you’re not longer in the house”).

That apparently simple decision between “Tú” and “Usted”) is the tip of the iceberg. Brand marketers and Latino marketing professionals need to chose the right word by following thorough strategic process that should include Hispanic market research, understanding the product category, defining what the brand is and understanding the best way to engage with the audience.

Please let us know if you would like to receive deeper information relevant to your industry, your geographic area or your specific strategic challenges. We can also provide the latest Hispanic marketing trends. We love to share!