Cinco de Mayo: When A Cultural Misconception Results in Massive Commercial Success
In the United States, there is a holiday known as ‘Cinco de Mayo’ (‘5th of May’ in English) that is often dubbed as the ‘Mexican St. Patrick’s Day’. This is because essentially, they are very similar; they are rooted in a culture foreign to where they are celebrated, are synonymous with widespread alcohol consumption and, crucially, represents a huge marketing opportunity for many companies.
But something they do not have in common is their genuine significance at home. While St. Patrick’s Day is indeed an important holiday for Irish people, Cinco de Mayo goes largely unnoticed in Mexico. So how could it be possible that something most Mexicans don’t really care about, has become so big in the United States? Let’s take a look back at history first.
The Background: A Victory Charged With Symbolism
Decades of both internal and external conflicts hindered Mexico’s development for most of the 19th century and, by 1860, the country was nearing bankruptcy. Crippling debt only made things worse, which is why the then president, Benito Juárez, decided to halt payments to its largest creditors: Spain, Britain and France. Needless to say, none of them were very happy about this.
An alliance was formed between the three European powers with the aim of forcing Juárez to the negotiating table. Eventually, an agreement was reached with Britain and Spain, but France was keen on getting its money back ASAP, so it invaded the country. Once French troops landed in the port of Veracruz in 1862, they started advancing towards Mexico City, facing little resistance on their path.
But on the 5th May 1862, when the French arrived at the city of Puebla, they encountered a poorly equipped, yet highly courageous army of 4,000 Mexican soldiers. A battle for the city was fought, and the locals were able to defeat the French invaders, who not only doubled them in number, but were also far more organised.
The victory was short-lived, though. France eventually managed to occupy the country for a few years and send Juárez into exile. In spite of this, this victory paved the way for the birth of Mexican patriotism.
Where Does the US & Corona Beer Fit In?
During the French intervention, the US provided both military and financial support to Mexico. The story of the Mexican victory in Puebla became widely known to their northern neighbours and, as a show of solidarity against the French occupation, the first commemoration of the battle took place in Southern California on 5th May 1863.
As the years went on, Mexicans on both sides of the border kept commemorating this symbolic victory. For Mexican-Americans living in the US, it was seen as a celebration of their culture and heritage. But the turning point came in the 1980s, when the Mexican beer brands Modelo and Corona launched an ad campaign inspired by the Battle of Puebla: the main targets were, of course, Mexicans and other Latinos, but the message resonated with a wider audience and sales skyrocketed.
Cinco de Mayo, as we know it today, was born. And it quickly became a US national phenomenon; beer and food companies capitalised on the partying and heavy drinking that it became associated with. To put it into perspective, Americans spent no less than $715 USD million on beer for Cinco de Mayo in 2015, a Nielsen research study found; which is interesting if we consider that, according to a 2018 survey by NBC, only 10% of Americans actually know of its origin.
The Mexican Perspective
If a holiday inspired by Mexican culture is so popular in the US, then it must be even bigger in Mexico, right? The reality might be a bit disappointing. While students do get the day off, everything else is business as usual throughout Mexico. Perhaps only in the city of Puebla, a more celebratory mood can be witnessed. But it is still nothing compared to the long lines at Taco Bell a thousand kilometres to the north.
American-style Cinco de Mayo is a topic that divides Mexicans. Some simply find it funny and appreciate the fact that, even if it is based on misconceptions, there is some interest in their culture among their neighbours. Others roll their eyes and frown upon the lack of awareness about the real Mexican Independence Day and how it is celebrated; as if someone mistakenly wished you a happy birthday a few months before the actual date.
If you are wishing to take advantage of commercially successful days such as ‘5 de Mayo’ for your brand in the US, please get in touch and we will help you with creative that resonates on both sides of the border!