Posted by: Manuel Delgado | March 6, 2009

How formal can we be (the "tú" vs. "usted" dilemma)

In Spanish, like in other languages like Japanese or Polish, there’s are “levels” of respect when addressing other people.

Expressing different levels of respect in Spanish is very straightforward: when addressing someone in an informal way, the word for “you” is “” (or “vos” in some countries like Argentina or Guatemala). In formal conversations, the usual word is “usted.”

However, these are not rigid norms. In Colombia, for instance, the word “usted” is used among close friends. In other countries, you may address friends as “usted” lightheartedly, to downplay the informality of the relationship.

(A side comment: with an accent is different from tu without an accent. “Tú” is the personal pronoun, while “tu” is the possessive. “You bring your ball” is “Tú trae tu pelota”)

While in the English language there are no informal and formal flavors of “you,” it’s interesting how the language gets around that by using “sir” or “m’am” to convey respect.

Of course, there’s the incredibly valuable “y’all” when you need to make it clear that you’re referring to more than one person.

When it comes to Hispanic marketing in Spanish, the decision of whether to use “” or “usted” is a critical one. It needs to be made very early, ideally at the strategy definition stage. 

The “” vs. “usted” decision will drive many elements of the communication: from the copy and the visuals on the ads, to the content of the direct marketing pieces and the way phone reps will talk to customers.  

There are three elements to consider when deciding between “” and “usted”:

  •           Audience: As a rule of thumb, if you’re targeting a younger audience, you should use the informal tone (). For older audiences, usted. Also, for audiences with higher income and educational levels, we tend to use usted.
  •           Category: For more “serious” categories, like financial services, healthcare or high ticket items, usted is more commonly used. For less formal categories (like fast food, candy or soft drinks),  is more common.
  •           Voice of the Brand: This is unique to each marketer. More approachable, informal brands use , while more upscale, serious brands use usted.

It’s easy to see those factors at work when observing different brands in the same category. For instance, while in the credit card category American Express uses usted, Visa uses . Other examples are Toyota () vs. Mercedez Benz (usted) or JetBlue () vs. American Airlines (usted).

Another important decision is whether communications targeting Hispanics should mirror the tone used for non-Hispanic market. This also depends on the specific situation and it’s defined by the strategy.

For instance, one of our clients is Dignity Memorial, the largest provider of funerary services in the US.

The general market campaign that the company currently runs is informal. It targets Baby Boomers who want to express their individuality until the very last moment (“I want to play the Beach Boys in my funeral”).

For Hispanics, however, the way to react and process the loss of a loved one, and the meaning of the funeral is very different.  This of course affects the entire purchasing process.

So we decided to take a more formal, unemotional approach to the brand, appealing to responsibility and the importance of avoiding unnecessary distress to your loved ones. My favorite headline was “Cómo seguir siendo el hombre de la casa cuando ya no esté en su casa” (“How to still be the man of the house after you’re not longer in the house”)

I think of that one word (“” or “Usted”) as the tip of the iceberg. They need to be a result of a thorough strategic process that understand the product category, define what the brand is and understands the best way to engage with the audience. 


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