What can a celebrity chef teach the pharmaceutical industry about connecting with the Latino community?
I was recently introduced to US veteran and renowned chef Ronaldo Linares, “El Conductor de La Communidad Latina” (The Conduit of the Latino Community). Ronaldo is the author of SABORES DE CUBA: Diabetes Friendly Traditional and Nueva Cubano Cuisine and America’s leading expert on healthy Latino cooking. The American Diabetes Association published Ronaldo’s book after seeing his work on Food Network’s Chopped, BBC America’s cross-country chef competition “Chef Race,” WNBC, Fox News, Telemundo, Univision, Hispanic Kitchen, and at live events including the Food Network’s “Food & Wine Festival,” the International Restaurant and Food Service Show, and the American Diabetes Association’s own annual expo at New York City’s Jacob Javits Center.
Why did the American Diabetes Association put their resources behind a cookbook for Cuban food? They knew they needed to reach the Latino community. How did they know? The numbers speak for themselves. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tells us that 40% of US adults are currently tracking to develop Type 2 Diabetes. Within the US Hispanic population, that number is 50%. In terms of terminal risk, Hispanic people are 50% more likely to die from diabetes than Caucasians.
But why a cookbook? Why partner with a chef to bring focus to a health crisis? Aren’t the numbers compelling enough? No. They aren’t. Jennifer M. Taber, PhD., Bryan Leyva, B.A, and Alexander Persoskie, Ph.D. performed a study of national data investigating why people avoid medical care. The social determinants of health play a major role in whether people will even look at the numbers to begin with. These are not only related to income and education. In fact, Latinos in the US represent approximately $1.3 Trillion of consumer market impact.
Nobody wants to self-identify as at-risk for any disease, but the Latino community is especially prone to remaining in the dark due to cultural factors such as stigma, underrepresentation, and distrust of standardized Western Medicine, as evidenced by another study done by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Ronaldo Linares wanted to change this. His motivation to really make a difference is why his chef’s hat is only one of the several he wears. He partners with The Setroc Group to help pharmaceutical and healthcare companies with media strategy, multicultural outreach events, and content development. Their goal is to bridge the gap and build the trust it takes to get people to really take lifesaving action. One of the ways Ronaldo knows for sure this can be done is through “sabor,” or flavor.
Food is an extremely important element of Latino culture, and Ronaldo knows firsthand how reluctant Latinos can be to sacrifice their ancestral flavors, even in service of their health. When Ronaldo was writing SABORES DE CUBA…, he tested his recipes on a chef and food critic with uncompromising high standards: his Mamá. “I don’t know, mijo,” she responded, when he first told her what he was working on, “food is supposed to taste good. There should be love in it.”
Determined to counter her skepticism, Ronaldo created dish after dish packed with flavor, recreating some of her most beloved traditional dishes with modern techniques. While writing this cookbook, and as a chef at Martino’s, his family restaurant, he used what his Mamá taught him, from the color a meal should have on the plate to the proper way to pick out an avocado at the market. In every recipe, in every dish served, he added a healthy dash of love, too.
During this 4-month process, she ate only his recipes. She loved every bite. She also lost 20 lbs., reducing her own risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, and saw a marked improvement in her blood pressure.
Stories like this, personal accounts that overcome real culture-based objection, are one way companies can deliver a message to build trust. These stories have to come from the people who live them in order to feel authentic.
There’s a tendency within ethnic communities, to distrust “outsiders.” The perception is that you won’t “get” what’s really important to them, or that you won’t care if you do get it. If you don’t care, why should they trust you to tell them which behaviors to change or treatments to try?
Ronaldo and the Setroc Group incorporate these “historias culturales,” cultural stories, into content, media outreach, and as they build out events. They go to places with high density Latino populations and bring healthy events to them that feel like them, with cultural music, dances, and food. Sharing footage of these events provides social proof that you’ve reached out, and that their community benefitted. This creates avenues for the conversations that open doors to take place.
To show that Latino cultural values are important to you to understand in digital and traditional media, Ronaldo recommends focusing on representation. This can be as easy as making sure your marketing department is intentionally inclusive of Latino models and actors in your materials and advertising. “We want to see people who look like they could be our family.”
When using sample names in writing copy, make sure they are real Latino names. Bonus points for not calling every Latino man Juan or José, same as you wouldn’t name every Caucasian man John or Joe. A little creativity shows effort not to tokenize.
One of the most important considerations in the area of representation is diversity. Latinos want to see themselves represented as they see themselves. Not just as Spanish-speaking people (and by the way, they don’t all speak Spanish), but as people of diverse race, language, and cultural background. Ask yourselves if you are covering multiple national backgrounds within the Latino community when you tell their stories. One powerful way to represent diversity in representation is through images or other communication that includes the foods that are the most popular within each Latino origin country or culture. Show pupusas if you want to speak to an El Salvadorean group. Arepas for Colombians. Gorditas for Mexicans. Go niche. They’ll notice.
There will always be challenges for pharmaceutical companies when connecting with the unique groups who often can benefit the most from your treatments. Even with the best of intentions to help people, there’s a danger of alienating patients if your communication feels tokenizing rather than authentically connective.
Your team won’t be expected to know everything about every culture, but Ronaldo encourages you to at least try; all intentional efforts make an impact. Look within your organization and ask Latino coworkers for their own stories. Intentionally pursue the inclusion of their voices at the table. Being purposeful about diversity from the inside of your organization reflects in the work that you do in messaging to the outside.
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