Written by: Toni Lepeska | photography by: Eddie Arrossi Photography

Terry Deas walked away from the National Hispanic Corporate Council’s annual summit this spring with the wonderful feeling that he’s been getting it right. A diversity strategist for 16 years, Deas was surrounded by like-minded representatives of Fortune 1000 companies at the Atlanta event, which centered on the sharing of best corporate practices in the capturing of the U.S. Hispanic consumer market.

At about 57 million people, Hispanics represent almost 18 percent of the population, and in 2015, possessed $1.3 trillion of the buying power, larger than the GDP of Spain. The group is expected to make up nearly a quarter of the population by 2040.

“Being at the summit,” said Deas, director of diversity and outreach the past five years at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, “confirmed and reaffirmed that understanding, and working to better understand and better connect with this community group, is a competitive necessity. The group is so large that corporations cannot afford to not get this right.”

The two-day affair, attended by 185 people representing at least two dozen companies, began with a welcome reception at the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta. Summit attendees were bused to the media conglomerate Cox Enterprises for sessions like “Unconscious Bias as the Barrier to True Innovation” and “Leading with Cultural Intelligence to Deliver Better Business Results.”

On the final day, attendees went to the Georgia International Convention Center for sessions like “A Conversation on Latino Civic Engagement: The Era of Inaction Has Passed.” Between presentations by subject matter experts, participants were exposed to networking opportunities to share successful strategies among themselves.

While predecessors of the annual summit were held for years, the event is only in its second year in its present form, said Octavio A. Hinojosa Mier, executive director of the National Hispanic Corporate Council, also known as NHCC. Companies represented at this year’s summit included Shell Oil, State Farm Insurance, Marriott, Coca-Cola, Home Depot and UPS. NHCC is in the midst of determining what city will host next year’s summit.

The corporate world has been taking notice of the Hispanic market in varying degrees for years. NHCC formed in 1985, when a dozen Fortune 500 executives met to discuss the business potential of the rapidly emerging Hispanic market. According to experts, to successfully market to Hispanics, corporations must recognize the groups within the group. Not only are there generational differences among Hispanics, as in other groups, but differences in culture and language, depending on the country of family origin. Knowing the market requires research and a grasp of consumer trends.

“It’s important to understand the nuances of key consumer groups,” Hinojosa said. “In the case of the Hispanic market, it is understanding how diverse Hispanics are. It’s complex.”

Michael Gonzales, director of diversity and inclusion at Hallmark Cards, sat on a panel at the summit and was a presenter the previous year. He said within that diversity are points of consistency, such as family pride.

Coca-Cola tapped into the importance of family names with its “tattoo can” marketing campaign, said Hinojosa. The soft drink company put transferable, temporary tattoos of common Latino family names on cans so they could be pressed onto arms or other body parts. It was a hit and was the subject of one of the sessions at the summit. For diversity strategists and others pressed by corporate leaders for facts and proven successes, the Coca-Cola campaign could be a useful tool to win support within their companies.

“Coke is a great example of how tailoring a campaign in a way that shows culture inclusion and celebration can really build brand connectivity for an organization or a company,” said Cracker Barrel’s Deas.

Deas, who is NHCC chair-elect and calls diversity issues “a passion of mine,” said that in addition to the affirmation he experienced, he felt the summit highlighted the opportunity for corporations to better utilize employee resource groups. These like-minded people who gather for development and networking can provide valuable market insight for their companies. Coca-Cola utilized them for its “tattoo can” campaign. The insider information they provided illustrates the saying “our employees are our greatest asset,” Deas said.

Hallmark Cards’ Gonzales was on the summit panel “The Return of Investment of Employee Resource Groups: How Innovative Actions Impact the Bottom Line.” He called ERG groups “a valuable, internal resource … and it’s free!”

When executives recognize everyone comes with a bias, or a life-long lens through which they look at the world, Gonzales said, corporate leaders can utilize the diversity within their companies, get “out of autopilot … and listen objectively.”

Hallmark capitalized on its employee resource groups in reimagining its product offerings in the Castro district of San Francisco, Calif. At a local Walgreens, Hallmark struggled with sales. Instead of pulling its product in the neighborhood, which is reportedly 95 percent LGBT, Hallmark decided to bring relevant products into the community that illustrated the relationships in it.

“We flipped that store from double-digit red to double-digit black,” said Gonzales, who is certain this example is applicable to the Hispanic community. “The model is portable,” he added.

NHCC’s executive director said he thinks attendees left the summit with a better idea of what is working with the U.S. Hispanic consumer market and what is not. In the “safe environment” of the summit, participants were able to ask questions and get expert advice. In response to the success, NHCC will be offering webinars for corporate members who were not able to attend the summit, and may open up the webinar as “paid opportunity” to nonmembers.