Cinco de Mayo is a real Mexican holiday. No, it is not Mexico's Independence Day (September 16) nor Day of the Dead (November 2). May 5 is the celebration of the Battle of Puebla, when a woefully unprepared and outnumbered Mexican army overpowered the much more experienced French troops in 1862, a battle I like to imagine was as brutal as the fight scenes from the movie 300 (which is based on a similar historic event featuring Persians versus Greeks). It is not really a significant holiday in Mexico, except maybe in Puebla, the city where the battle took place.
In the U.S., however, it's a whole different story. There are "fiestas," and festivals, and brands with massive promotions that commemorate the day in cities and rural towns. Much like St. Patrick's Day, it has become a day observed by drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Some historians ascribe the first big Cinco de Mayo celebrations to Mexican immigrants living in California in the 19th century, who reveled in festivities after the news about Mexico's unlikely triumph crossed the border. About 100 years later, it was popularized by alcohol brands trying to appeal to the Hispanic community.
Now, as a Mexican citizen, I mostly welcome the celebration and embrace of my culture among foreigners. You see, for the most part we are a very fun and friendly bunch, with an incredible history, and even more amazing food, even if I do say so myself. It's also especially satisfying to share and celebrate Mexican heritage with friends and strangers in a time when xenophobia is seemingly spreading across the globe faster than any one of Kanye's tweets.
All that said, if you're a business seeking to capitalize on the popularity of Cinco de Mayo, I'd appreciate it if you didn't mangle the culture you're supposedly embracing. (One way to do this is to consult with people familiar with Mexican culture before you launch your promotion.) And, please, lose those unoriginal stereotypes. Here are my top three picks in the "marketing gone wrong" category, that any business can learn from.
1. Red pepper medal
Manchester, Pennsylvania-based US Road Running has promoted live and virtual races in the U.S. since 2014. The virtual races rely on the honor code. You sign up for a race, pony up $13.99, and a medal gets shipped to you. Participants are supposed to run, track their time, and submit it to the organization afterward. The virtual runs are inspired by anything as inane as chocolate milk to holidays like Mother's Day and Cinco de Mayo.
Naturally, the medal for Cinco de Mayo is a bright red pepper holding a maraca and wearing a sombrero -- a nice stereotype mélange. But the worst part for me is that Mexico is actually home to one of the most famous groups of runners in the world: the Tarahumara people.
Reta Blue, who manages the virtual races, says the company has almost run out of stock (it's sold about 144 medals), and that its design is chosen on the basis of available artwork.
Blue says she still doesn't know what next year's design will be (last year's was also a pepper). If you want to celebrate Mexico and also make a buck, maybe consider a medal design inspired by a Tarahumara runner?
2. Cinco de "Froyo"
SweetFrog of Richmond, Virginia, launched a promo for its frozen yogurt using the hashtag "cinco de froyo." I understand the temptation to use cutesy phrases (the most popular by far is probably "cinco de drinko"), but please don't. And if your business is already using Mexico's holiday as a marketing hook, without touching on its history or significance, don't muddle things further by using a frog wearing a sombrero.
But the real problem I have with this promotion is that ice cream isn't particularly popular in Mexico. It's far more popular in the U.S, China, Japan, and other national markets, according to 2016 research.
I was puzzled by the promotion, so I asked SweetFrog's CEO, Patrick Galleher, why "cinco de froyo." He told me that a lot of businesses run a Cinco de Mayo promotion, and that frozen yogurt after lunch "makes a lot of sense." When I asked him if he knew what Cinco de Mayo stood for, he simply said, "I don't, actually." (It's likely that the hundreds of other businesses running similar promotions do not either.) The company has been hosting this promotion for about four years.
3. Mexican flag boxing gloves
Sports apparel company Everlast launched a limited edition of its Powerlock training gloves featuring Mexico's flag. On its face, this looks like a really thoughtful way to commemorate Mexico on this holiday. The caveat, however, is that Mexican law is rather strict on accepted use of our flag. If you want to use it in a promotional item, you need to get permission from the government or you will be fined.
Everlast did not immediately reply to calls and emails inquiring whether it received approval. Inquiries to Mexico's office of civic development also went unanswered.