Prudencio: Latin Americans want fair play, but not just on the playing field

Respect and fair play are what an emerging, empowered, and digitally connected Latin American middle class is demanding across the region.

Ramiro Prudencio
Ramiro Prudencio

On June 15, 2013, as Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA President Joseph Blatter were introduced to officially open the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the Mané Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia broke out into a chorus of loud, disapproving boos.

The surprised Blatter admonished the crowd, asking for "respect and fair play" before handing the microphone to Rousseff. 

In the days leading up to the tournament, "respect and fair play" are exactly what Brazilians had taken to the streets to demand from their government. The jeers in the stadium were a reflection of the protests that had erupted across the country and that would peak at more than 2 million protestors marching across cities on June 20. Their demand was simple – rather than soccer stadiums, the government should build schools and hospitals and provide the public transportation Brazil so desperately needs. 

Respect and fair play are what an emerging, empowered, and digitally connected Latin American middle class is demanding across the region. And the likelihood is that they are demanding both from your company, your brand, or, if you work in an agency, your clients. 

Thanks to economic stability and growth over the past 15 years, more than 50 million Latin Americans have left poverty and joined the lower middle class. Today, the region has roughly the same number of poor and middle-class residents as defined by the World Bank. For societies and political systems that historically have been structured to cater primarily to the elite and poor, the rapid growth of a sizable middle class is generating new, and generally healthy, pressures. As a result, the social contract in Latin America is being questioned and re-written.

Who is this middle class? According to the World Bank, they are still dependent on public services, not rich enough to opt out of public education, healthcare, or transportation. They have seen relatively strong improvement in their quality of life within a generation, and their expectations are that improvements will continue for them and their children. The better off are accessing credit for the first time. Cheaper mobile connectivity has put the Internet and social networks in their hands.

Perhaps most importantly, no longer poor, they want to be treated fairly – by the government that provides them with services or the company whose products they purchase. For example, young Brazilians from this emerging middle class have used social networks to organize flash mobs inside shopping malls, often upscale ones that cater to the wealthy. These "rolezinhos" have been a unique combination of social activism, teenage rebellion, and challenge to Brazil’s social norms with a unique message: "I may not look like it, but I just may be your next customer. Deal with it."

But it’s not just Brazil. In 2011, Chile’s university students brought the country to a standstill. Dissatisfaction with the increasing price of higher education and the debt middle class families were taking on to send their children to college ignited strikes and university shutdowns. Again, social media was a critical element in the organization of the student movement. By late 2013, Michelle Bachelet was elected president for her second, non-consecutive term, promising free universal higher education for all Chileans. 

In Peru and Colombia, extractive industries have faced pressure from local communities, often indigenous ones, demanding a say in if, how, and when mining, oil, and gas projects move forward.  These are classic quality-of-life issues that countries experience as a greater number of their citizens want a bigger voice for themselves and accountability from institutions.

This "renegotiated" social contract has significant implications for companies. Traditionally in Latin America, consensus on major regulatory and other issues was built primarily with elites – government, business, and media. The rest of society was expected to follow. No more. Today, engaging a broad set of stakeholders early, building win-win relationships, empowering a management team that understands the value of building consensus, and effectively executing the right communications strategy can often be the difference between business success and failure. 

The new Latin American middle class is rewriting the rules – formal and informal – that govern how regional societies operate. And just like the referees supervising games inside the stadiums across Brazil this month, they will issues red cards to companies and governments that don’t respect them.

Ramiro Prudencio is president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Latin America.

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