5 PR lessons from Disney’s smash-hit ‘Coco’

The Disney film is tearing it up at the box office, and is the perfect example for communicators looking to engage the 52 million Latinos living in the U.S.

Disney Pixar’s “Coco” has smashed its box-office competitors, earning over $108 million since its pre-Thanksgiving release.

The film has drawn praise from critics and moviegoers alike, and it has struck an emotional chord with the U.S. Latino market segment.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, “Coco” is the story of Miguel, a 12-year-old boy in Mexico looking to connect with his ancestors on Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday where the dead are remembered, honored and celebrated by their friends and family members.

“Coco” should be required viewing for any professional communicator looking to engage the U.S. Hispanic population authentically, tastefully and creatively. Aside from the music, cuisine and vibrant colors beautifully illustrated throughout the film, “Coco” masterfully pulls back the curtain on the Latino family dynamics, including how family elders and ancestors are cared for, remembered and revered.

Below are five important lessons pulled from “Coco” for PR pros speaking to the 52 million Latino consumers residing in the United States:

1. Incorporate multigenerational storytelling.

Whether it’s an influencer campaign targeting millennials on social media, or focused earned media efforts reaching baby boomers, many PR efforts are developed and executed with a specific demographic in mind. “Coco” reached and told the story of the entire household.

The film did a fantastic job in developing characters, motivations and backstories across multiple generations, from 12-year-old Miguel, to the wheelchair-bound great grandmother.

Content that performs well among the Latino demographic is often that which can be shared, understood and related to by the entire family, not just what targets a narrow subset.

2. Learn from your mistakes.

The journey of the film’s success cannot be told without revisiting earlier incidents that sparked tremendous backlash against the entertainment giant.

Disney’s initial attempt at the animated depiction of the Day of the Dead included an actual trademark application for the Mexican holiday back in 2013. This drew the ire of many who believed Disney was appropriating Hispanic Mexican culture.

Within two weeks of the public outcry, Disney withdrew its trademark filing, released an official statement and went back to the drawing board.

Disney is not the first—and certainly will not be the last—brand to commit an unfortunate PR or marketing blunder involving cultural appropriation. However, everyone can learn from how they went about repairing the damage done by their earlier mistake.

3. Go beyond collaboration.

It’s apparent that Disney learned from the above blunder when they extended an invitation to animators, actors and cultural experts of Latino descent to not just have a voice or seat at the table, but have final say and input as co-creators.

Results of the cross-cultural collaborative effort were evident in every aspect of the film, including its use of languages, cultural observances and family dynamics.

Putting together a team with multicultural insights and experiences that can inform, shape and guide the creative process can prevent blunders like not allocating the resources or budget to incorporate multicultural insights, or only bringing in the multicultural team during the later stages of a PR campaign.

When this occurs, it may be too late to ensure that any concerns regarding potential cultural appropriation are properly addressed.

4. Tap into customs & traditions, not stereotypes.

Thanks to the authentic input and insights that went into the development of the film, “Coco” authentically incorporated many Mexican customs and traditions without playing to the lowest common denominator or worse, committing cultural appropriation.

Yes, there were mariachi bands, sombreros, tacos and tequila throughout the film, but everything served a purpose and contributed toward the film’s broader cultural context.

5. Language matters.

Even as the film was made available in a full-Spanish version in select U.S. cinemas and across Mexico, the filmmakers struck a healthy balance between English and Spanish dialogue. This helped avoid alienation of English-speaking viewers, and retained a sense of authenticity with native Spanish speakers, as well.

Additionally, the word choice was not limited to basic dictionary Spanish, but colloquial terms and mannerisms many Latino households are familiar with and use affectionately.

Nearly three out of four U.S. Hispanic residents speak Spanish at home, with 68 percent speaking English proficiently, according to Pew research data. Additionally, Hispanic millennials who are primarily English speakers are looking to strengthen their cultural connections and actively consume content in both languages.

Whether you’re developing social copy for a Hispanic-inspired food recipe, or drafting a call to action and key messaging on a healthcare campaign, understanding the impact authentic language selection and incorporation has on content performance is paramount for creating a successful multicultural campaign.

By no means does “Coco” serve as the definitive manual for reaching and engaging the U.S. Hispanic market.

A deeper sociocultural dive can certainly highlight missed opportunities and oversimplified characterizations throughout the film’s 109-minute runtime. Additionally, the 52 million Hispanics living in the U.S. come from or have generational & ancestral links to 33 countries throughout Latin America, each with their own cultural customs, family traditions and language dialects. One movie could never encompass such multitudes.

However, PR agencies and practitioners would be well served to incorporate these lessons into future plans. If not, you may risk falling victim to the proverbial chancla.

Luis Agostini is the media director at Henson Consulting, a public relations agency based in Chicago. He is the former vice president of the Hispanic Public Relations Association’s Chicago chapter.

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