From his spot in the control room at Tono Studios, Jaime Zapata has a window into the growing influence, and nuance, of the Hispanic market. In the last month, his Santa Monica, Calif., commercial audio company has brought sound to advertisements for such organizations as Alaska Airlines, Acura, the Humane Society and Universal Studios. All of these spots are in Spanish.
Tono’s role, which entails tasks as varied as casting talent and recording voice-overs, or sound design and final edits, is typically the last step in a television or digital campaign. The finer points of audio can make all the difference between an advertisement that resonates and one that falls flat.
For advertisers looking to target the increasingly multifaceted Hispanic market, the challenge goes beyond recording, mixing and editing. An ad must be culturally authentic.
”Laughter is a big difference,” said Mr. Zapata. Hispanics, he said, tend to be more boisterous when they laugh. Other cultural nuances must be considered. When a native Spanish speaker ”shushes,” it sounds a little different, he said. The same goes for humans making animal noises. Dogs do not ”ruff, ruff” in Spanish. They ”guau, guau.”
In 2007, Mr. Zapata and Raquel Ramirez saw an opportunity to cater to the Spanish-language advertising market. They combined their savings and brought in a silent partner to open their studio.
Relatively quickly, they built a following among advertising agencies that focus on the Hispanic market or have a division dedicated to this group. Tono’s portfolio, or reel as it is known in the industry, includes campaigns for Jack in the Box, PlayStation and Toyota. It even has a Cannes International Film Festival Award and a 2015 Super Bowl spot for T-Mobile.
Now the partners want to expand into the general market by helping advertisers speak to many audiences, whether in Spanish, English, or, as is increasingly the case, ”Spanglish.”
The motivation, Ms. Ramirez said, is not just to make the business grow but to make sure the business evolves with the Hispanic market. ”More and more you see the Hispanic channels throwing in English spots,” she said.
While the number of Hispanics is growing, to be sure, the share of those who speak Spanish is expected to decline to 66 percent in 2020, from 78 percent in 2000.
Though Tono is among a small number of audio studios in this niche, it is serving a growing number of creative agencies that have sprung up in the last decade to help companies reach Hispanic consumers. AHAA, a national trade organization representing the Hispanic marketing, communications and media industry, has more than 45,000 members.
Hispanics represent more than $1.4 trillion in purchasing power, according to the consumer research firm Nielsen, and that influence is growing. The Census Bureau projects that by 2020 more than 19 percent of the population will identify itself as Hispanic or Latino.
As this segment of the population is growing, digital, mobile and satellite media have created more opportunities for marketing to it. ”When I started there was really just Univision and Telemundo for Hispanics,” said Ms. Ramirez, who moved to the United States from Mexico in the early 1990s.
This is not to say marketing to this group is easy. Quite the opposite. For one thing, the term Hispanic describes people with ties to more than 20 countries, each with its own traditions, dialects and slang. ”If the writer is from Mexico and didn’t take into account that the ad is not just for people who are Mexican, it will not be the same, even if it’s perfect Spanish,” said Mr. Zapata, who added that Tono itself represents a combination of backgrounds. It has six full-time employees representing Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, and cultural differences are a frequent source of lunchtime banter.
At the same time, the definition of Hispanic is changing. ”Whereas Spanish used to be spoken primarily among immigrants, now the majority of Hispanics were born here and are bilingual,” said Andrew Orc, owner of Orc, a creative agency that specializes in Hispanic marketing and a Tono client. ”We have one foot in America and one foot in our roots.”
This has prompted advertisers to rethink their approach. While in the past a company might hire two ad agencies to develop two distinct campaigns, one for the Hispanic market and one for what is known as the general market, now it is taking a total market approach. ”You may have different demographics but you need to be consistent,” said Pablo Buffagni, who was head of creative at Conill Saatchi & Saatchi and Grupo Gallegos, and recently started BBQ Agency in Redondo Beach, Calif. ”There needs to be crossover.”
It is a delicate dance. ”If you’re not doing communication specifically targeted” to the Hispanic market, ”you’re going to miss them,” Mr. Orc said. ”And if you’re going to do an ad for the general market, you don’t want to alienate them.”
Late last year, Tono did the audio in English and Spanish for a Toyota Prius campaign. Now Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Zapata are making subtle changes to their own messaging with the goal of bringing in similar projects. They are recruiting engineers and producers who have worked primarily in English, and they recently revised their website with more emphasis on the general market.
One pitfall in any expansion is that a business alienates the very group that made it successful in the first place, forgetting its own roots. ”If you look at almost any successful campaign, they have a cultural insight with the group that they are connecting with,” said Felipe Korzenny, director of the Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication at Florida State University.
In that case, Tono’s owners say they are well positioned to make the leap. ”We aren’t just communicating to the Hispanic market,” Mr. Zapata said. ”We are that market.”
PHOTO: Jaime Zapata and Raquel Ramirez saw an opportunity to cater to the Spanish-language ad market and formed Tono Studios. (PHOTOGRAPH BY J. EMILIO FLORES FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)