Pizza Patrón founder reveals the secret to capturing the Latino market

When you imagine who is behind the successful  $40-million-dollar Pizza Patrón fast-food franchise, one would assume a Latino is the brains behind the niche pizza chain.  Meet Antonio Swad, the Italian-Lebanese businessman who started his business with his total life-savings of $11,000, in 1986. So how does Swad achieve success in marketing to a population he doesn’t belong to?

“Yeah, people are people, we all have many similarities but there are certain things that give certain groups of people a comfort level that don’t mean anything to another particular demographic,” he said from his company headquarters.

“For instance,” he said, “…take Mother’s Day.  Here in America it’s celebrated on the second Sunday in May, but that’s not when its celebrated in Mexico.  Over there, it’s always May 10, regardless of whether that’s a Sunday or not.  So if you’re trying to build rapport with the large percentage of Hispanics who are of Mexican ancestry, you’ll make a better impression wishing them a happy Mother’s Day on May 10 instead of the second Sunday in May.  It’s not that you’re expressing a fundamentally different sentiment, you’re just expressing it according to their traditions.  And doing that tells them: “I recognize how you do this, I ‘get’ you.”

Antonio Swad, chief executive officer of Pizza Patrón,  (Photo by Noah Berger/Bloomberg News)

Antonio Swad, chief executive officer of Pizza Patrón,
(Photo by Noah Berger/Bloomberg News)

Another example from Swad’s arsenal of cross cultural understandings is his vegetarian pizza — specifically the one with spinach topping on an Alfredo sauce base.  It’s not his top seller, he said, but, around the time of Lent he promotes it heavily to his core customer base (which is one-hundred-percent Catholic). He says promoting this veggie pizza sends a key message.  “It tells them, ‘we feel ya!’  We know you’re going to alter your buying habits a little bit so why not try something you probably do usually order.”

Listening to Swad it’s tempting to think there might be a ‘playbook’ of ‘Latino-isms’ that could be grafted on to an existing marketing plan.  “Not so.” Swad will tell you.  “Try that,” he says, “and it will feel false and gratuitous and quite likely backfire.”  Swad says his team is constantly listening to his customers, and responding with new promotions that are tailored to join their needs with his products.

Glenn Llopis, founder of the Center for Hispanic Leaderhip, is an advisor to Fortune 500 types.  He says what Swad is doing is really no different than what any marketer does to connect with any group of people.  “If you want to sell shoes to ‘soccer moms’ you’ve got to find styles that will appeal to them and use language that lets them know you ‘get’ how they think.  If you’re trying to reach ‘teenage boys’ or ‘pre-teen girls’ or ‘retirees’ or ‘women executives,’ or anyone,  you’ll have to take time to figure out the culture of that group, and tailor your message to connect with their interests.”

When it comes to the Hispanic community, that might mean using Spanish language, or English language peppered with Spanish expressions, or no Spanish at all.  It depends on what segment of the Hispanic market you’re trying to engage.  Swad focuses on first generation, mostly Mexican immigrants, but the Hispanic market is much more diverse than that.  Another business in another Latin market will need to listen to its own customers to figure out what they think is cool, and how they like to express it, and how your product or service fits in to their needs.  And for that, there is no ‘secret-code’ or ‘playbook’ beyond your own observations of your own customers.

To find out more on Pizza Patron and how to market to Latinos tune in this Sunday May 12 to MSNBC’s “Your Business” at 7:30am ET. 

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