Besides non-traditional ingredients, salsa brands in the Southwest may also differentiate themselves with unique features or services. Examples include organic ingredients, home delivery, and salsa-of-the month clubs. Credibility is a problem, however. As Hernandez notes, unlike the imported Mexican brands that have been around for a couple of generations, most of the Southwest brands are only five or ten years old.
Price is another differentiator. “The price of the Southwest brands is perhaps double or more the price of the more authentic [Mexican] brands,” Hernandez says. “They’re more gourmet and more regional. The packaging is more appealing—not to the expert or heavy user—but for gifts or unique mixed ingredients.”
Hernandez says the brands imported from Mexico are better known to Hispanic consumers, and to first and second generation Mexican Americans in the US. But he says they also appeal to Anglos who like authentic Mexican flavors. He feels that Mexican brands like Herdez, La Costena, and La Victoria, with their traditional ingredients, trade on their credibility and name recognition. “Hispanic and Mexican customers buy because of nostalgia,” he says. “They remember the brands because they have been around for two or three generations. These are names they recognize. They are more authentic.”
“Two-thirds of our sales are to Anglo consumers,” Hernandez says. “But in terms of dollars, it’s 50/50. The Hispanic market recognizes the brands more and buys more volume. Many of the Anglos are looking for authentic brands that they don’t find where they live.” As he points out, “It’s hard to have national distribution because of the system of channeled distribution which makes it very expensive to introduce new products nationwide.”
Packaging is also an issue. “Many of the more authentic brands still have cans,” he says. “It’s an interesting concept. With smaller cans, you open the can and use everything at once. That’s instead of opening a big 24-oz jar and using a little bit and then putting it back in the refrigerator where it maybe lasts two weeks.” He adds, “Most of the Southwest brands use glass only.” In addition, he says, many of the brands imported from Mexico use bilingual labeling or at least have the original name in Spanish.
Unlike the Southwest brands, the traditional Mexican brands make no attempt to offer special features, services, or programs. So, sitting on the supermarket shelf beside familiar Anglo brands, the Mexican brands’ authenticity may actually be lost on Anglos who do not recognize the old brand names.
Roger Hurni is the creative director of the brand consultancy Off Madison Ave in Tempe, AZ. “I don’t really believe the Mexican brands have a strategy for courting customers in the US,” he says. “But they could be successful in spite of themselves. In 2002 Hispanic births in this country outpaced Anglo births for the first time. That’s a fundamental shift in the future of our population.” Looking down the road, he adds, “Almost by default, you’re going to find an infusion of those brands from Mexico and from some of the Latin-based countries.”
Like Hernandez, Hurni feels that Mexican salsa brands would do well to trade on their authenticity. But Hurni further recommends segmentation, using the brand’s authenticity to appeal to Anglos and first and second generation Mexican-Americans, and the brand’s heritage as a point of differentiation for Hispanics who have been here longer.
“From a national brand perspective,” he says, “you’ve seen brands position themselves as being from the Southwest even though they are national brands. Brands like Old El Paso. Salsa from the Southwest is okay but true authenticity is salsa from Mexico. Arguably any brand coming out of Mexico has a better authenticity story.”
Hurni does not see coalescence in the salsa market any time soon. “You’re never going to find the ubiquity of one brand across so many audience segments. I don’t think that will ever change. There are people who will buy into ‘Hey, I’m all about authentic.’ Maybe that’s the smallest audience. And then there are those people who are translators, they say, ‘I like the idea of Mexican food, but I need it a little tamer.’ They are the people who get into the fusion kinds of products. And when it goes incredibly mainstream, there’ll be another set of brands that water down the spiciness to the point that it can appeal to the mainstream.”
Given the popularity of Mexican food north of the border, Hurni wonders whether other traditional Native American foods will eventually enjoy a similar wave of popularity. “We might find some of that influence in the US from Native American culture 10, 15, or 20 years from now,” he says.
And so, perhaps the US, after 400 years of searching, will finally find its roots, one meal at a time.