Vicks VapoRub shines as a cultural staple during Hispanic Heritage Month

Family traditions, and even a distinct smell, can bond products to communities. Case in point: Vicks VapoRub.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Near the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, the more-than-125-year-old Vicks VapoRub brand went viral on social media, and not in a way backed by parent company Procter & Gamble. 

The tweet, featuring VapoRub with a January 1987 expiration date, received more than 330,000 likes. It also triggered media attention from Today, the New York PostMarketWatch and Consumer Reports. (P&G responded to the tweet, recommending customers not use VapoRub beyond its expiration date). 

Nonetheless, the Twitter storm raised awareness of the Hispanic community’s affection for the salve.

Cynthia Zavala, executive director of marketing at Latino media company Mitú, notes that VapoRub has been a household, medicinal cure-all for generations of Hispanics. 

“Particularly as people are celebrating Latino Heritage Month, this represents the fond memories of how our abuelitas [grandmothers] would often seek to cure our colds at home and passed it down to our parents and now us to our children,” says Zavala.

Genomma Lab U.S.A. president Agustin Caceres calls VapoRub “the most iconic example” of a product “jokingly viewed as a Hispanic Mom’s must-have.”

Yet why has the product’s popularity with Hispanic and Latino Americans endured through the generations? One reason is tradition, another is its smell. Sonia Diaz, SVP of Balsera Communications, a public affairs and media relations company with expertise in the U.S. Hispanic market, says that Hispanic culture is deeply influenced by customs and traditions from individuals’ homelands.

“There’s a tendency to gravitate toward holistic or homeopathic treatments that were passed down from our ancestors,” she explains. She credits the product’s combined scent of menthol, camphor and eucalyptus as one of the reasons for its staying power. 

“Our sense of smell is the strongest and quickest memory inducer,” she says, noting that VapoRub triggers nostalgic feelings of being taken care of by loved ones.

Mike Valdes-Fauli, president and CEO of Pinta, a cross-cultural marketing agency, also points to the sentimental value of the ointment. “The cliché of Hispanics disproportionately valuing and staying close to family remains completely true,” he says. He notes that mothers and grandmothers used the product as a cure spanning common colds, nausea and headaches, creating positive and enduring memories.

However, he adds that Hispanic cultural staples have a long history of product distribution across Latin America, linked to generations of Latinos before they immigrated to the U.S. Another example is affinity for the Colgate brand, Valdes-Fauli adds. 

When the Spanish flu hit the U.S. in 1918 and 1919, Vicks VapoRub sales more than tripled in just one year, according to P&G. “This enabled the Vicks brand to expand outside of the U.S. to Mexico in 1923, with VapoRub as the hero product,” said a company spokesperson. “The launch in Mexico was so successful that expansion continued.”

Diaz opines that a key to longevity of the brand’s cultural status lies in showing gratitude and giving back to customers for their loyalty. This could mean investing in the physical and financial health and growth of Hispanic communities. 

“The Hispanic community is also known to have the strongest brand loyalty of any other demographic,” says Diaz. “So, marketing to this group, if done in a genuine, authentic and organic way, offers brands a tremendous opportunity to capture and retain these audiences over time.”

Both Diaz and Valdes-Fauli stress the importance of hiring the right people with expertise to authentically engage with diverse Hispanic cultures in an ongoing, nuanced way beyond Hispanic Heritage Month.

Valdes-Fauli adds, “If you get a lucky break, don’t count your blessings. Instead, double-down efforts to capitalize on the positive opportunity that’s been created.”

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