Marketing Puerto Rico: Interview with Alan Taveras

By: Yadira Y. Caro

In recent weeks, news about Puerto Rico and its deepening economic crisis have occupied the attention of major U.S. publications: in sum, things are so bad everyone seems to be leaving the Island. I am one those Puerto Ricans who left (over a decade ago) but am also striving to find the silver lining. This is why when I heard the interview of Alan Taveras on a local podcast  I had to find out more about his initiative to promote Puerto Rican businesses.

Instead of planning their escape from the Puerto Rico, Alan and his brother Nestor Guarien Taveras not only stayed but also saw an opportunity to target the diaspora while promoting local products through Brands of Puerto Rico. This virtual marketplace or as Alan calls it “the Amazon of Puerto Rican products” started a year ago.

The Taveras brothers, who have MBAs and attended the Founder Institute, were already building success with their Très Epic agency, a programming firm which provides services to advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. These agencies though, were big international brands.

Based on their own experience abroad (Guarien studied at Boston University while Alan went to Argentina’s University of Palermo), they saw there were consumers eager to get products from home and decided to launch the start up which has gained traction through the combination of traditional and digital marketing.

During a visit to their offices in Puerto Rico, I spoke with Alan about the importance of branding and advertising. We started the conversation talking about the origins of Brands of Puerto Rico.

Note: The interview has been edited for space.

How did you started with Brands Of?

It was early March or the last days of February of 2014, it was the first time the bonds of Puerto Rico were downgraded to junk and the diaspora groups and every newspaper were talking about how (messed up) we were or how many people left Puerto Rico. (My brother and I) used to take one Friday each month to just throw ideas on the board like what type of startup we can do, because Très Epic was made for us to have capital to live and to invest in our ideas. That was the mission from the start. One day my brother was reading out loud an article which  said monthly roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving on those days to the states, mainly Florida as always. A lot of people were alarmed on this, it was like a crisis, my Facebook newsfeed was depressing to say the least.

We started to look at that as an opportunity because since we were little, everyone would tell us Puerto Rico is a small market, entrepreneurs will never make it here and that’s why the big companies here are the distributors, because there is no space to create something new. So we started looking at that, (and also) we came across the fact that almost 5 million of people from Puerto Rico were living in the states. Suddenly it is an appealing market that nobody was thinking about. Everyone was focusing on how bad it was, but for us it was a good sign.

We started to research on local brands. There are a lot of people doing cool things in Puerto Rico, no one knows about them and they don’t have online presence. It was like connecting the dots. We decided to make a marketplace for local entrepreneurs to sell to that diaspora.

In terms of your marketing mindset, did you acquire that thanks to the Founder Institute?

Founder Institute is really really tough on first, build the market. For example, with Brands of Puerto Rico we did not write a line of code until we had like a thousand followers on Facebook. So first, build that market and if it gets traction, build the product. That helped us create this fast and at really low cost.

How did you reach out to the people in the diaspora?

I don’t know if its something that is happening right now or if our idea had the prefect timing but suddenly the idea got a great response. (Local TV channel) WAPA featured us, we got an interview with CNN en español… It’s mostly organic, we have not an invested in marketing, I have to be honest on that. We have a saying here ‘try until you get it’ so every day we called the newspapers, every TV channel, ‘interview us, interview us’ until they said yes. Now what we do is invest a little bit and it is really targeted; we do digital marketing which is our forte, our knowledge. For example, I target campaigns to people in Orlando, I target campaigns to people in Brooklyn, New York and I can maximize the performance of my dollar to get to those people.

Also our biggest, biggest, biggest marketing weapon is word of mouth. If your cousin bought it in New York and he told all of his friends, it spreads.

In term of the overall idea, during the interview with the podcast you were wondering why it did not occurred to anyone before.

It’s a pretty simple concept. A lot of people tell me, ‘you are doing such innovative stuff’ but I don’t find that we are this breakthrough technology; its e-commerce. E-commerce has been here for decades. For me it’s a pretty simple idea to sell Puerto Rican brands to people from Puerto Rico outside of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps is the mentality that when it comes to producing something in the Island, people think just about the local market and they don’t really think in terms of outside markets.

Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the influence my brother and I had studying abroad that we see the world as a marketplace and not just Puerto Rico.

In term of finding the products locally and developing those relationships with local vendors, how do you do that?

In the first days it was almost impossible: imagine some kid coming to you telling that he is going to build a platform, it’s not even built, going to let you sell stuff for free and only charge you in transactions. We had a database of 300 brands and only 30 brands on our launch on July 11 (of 2014). Now because of the hype of the PR (public relations) people come to us, but in the first months we took a lot of no’s: ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘You are going to sell on the Internet?.’

It’s been real fun because we have a lot of people that work on agriculture, that don’t have technology knowledge and we even sit down with them and open a Paypal account. I opened Paypal accounts for Antojitos de Mango, (the owner) is like 80 years old but for me he is the one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever known. He has so much knowledge, always with a smile in his face. Not everyone has this opportunity to learn a lot from the people who have been doing this their whole lives.

In regards of what you are doing now, is there some sort of model that you look up to in other countries that’s doing this as well?

Right now it’s a cool moment for us as a company. Brands of Puerto Rico is one year old and thanks to everything that has happened and the trust that these brands have put in us, we are starting to grow, not only to grow on the amount of companies we have in Puerto Rico, but we as a company are starting to expand to other markets.

We are about to launch Brands of Argentina, and Brands of Nicaragua. From my connections in Argentina, we are in conversation with some venture capitalists who are interested in putting money on the company for us to start building franchises on every market. We are going to implement what we learned here in this whole year.

What are your particular goals for Brands of Puerto Rico?

For Brands of Puerto Rico and for Brands of -I am starting to think as the Brands of concept and not just Brands of Puerto Rico,- is to create the biggest quality oriented catalogs of brands and products of Latin America, and supply to that diaspora in the United States. Basically show the world that not everything is big brands in multinational companies, that good things are made by people who work in modest ways and they do deserve a chance. I think Brands of and our platform is a tool to give them the chance, that equal plane level field. For example, if you want a t-shirt you can buy Sotomayor which is local entrepreneur instead of going to Pac Sun in a mall.

How many brands do you have?

I have 80, I counted 2 weeks ago, but we have a pipeline. Let me tell you the process: you (as company) learn from us and we learn about you. We have a formal phone call or email and you come here to our offices with the product. We do the screening to see if it’s good quality, if it’s local brand, if that person is registered in the government, that is really important. We do a photo shoot free of cost for that brand and those photos, once they are properly edited, are uploaded to our e-commerce platform. We do a blog post, we do a social media post. Our business model is transaction based, we make 20% of each transaction.

If they are not registered, do you help them?

We help them with everything. We’ve done logos for people. A lot of people tell me ‘you are not supposed to that.’ If they don’t have a standard they are not going to sell, so it’s really important for me personally and for the company to make these entrepreneurs think and act upon their brand. A product is a product until you build a brand around it.

Is that something often people forget, to market their brand?

I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs in the last year, I learned that different to how we think, people out there think the product is the star. For me, because I studied Advertising and then in Business I concentrated in Marketing, for me what is the star is the brand. You can sell this pen, anything, if you have a brand around it, if your communication is good, if your look is good. I think like that. But I learned most entrepreneurs here in Puerto Rico don’t give a (crap) about it. We are trying to teach people that the brand is really important and how you communicate, how you do advertising, is as important as a product.

Would you recommend people to study advertising?

I will recommend studying advertising not necessarily to work on advertising. It helps you communicate better. You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything, but advertising helps you sell and communicate better and have a presence that is appealing to the market. If you are looking for a date, if you are trying to sell something, if you are trying to get out of trouble, if you communicate good, Is effective.

I think it’s important the way you communicate things.

Follow Brands of Puerto Rico on Twitter @brandsofpr or email Alan at info@brandsofpuertorico.com

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

She Likes Long Text Messages Because She Appreciates a Complete Thought: Interview with Alex Wall

By: Yadira Y. Caro

The title of this blog captures the beginning of the career of Alex Wall in digital marketing. The Lead Marketing Strategist at Roar Media (and Muay Thai fighter) started delving into this field while in college at University of Central Florida using a variation of the text above (read on to learn more). In her career, she has continued searching for the latest trends and applying new approaches, including tactics learned from science.

During a recent presentation during Social Media Day Miami on ‘Social Neuromarketing,’ Alex used images, quotes and stats to tell the story of what social media does to our brains and how can marketers and content developers use it to their advantage. In our interview we talked about applying science to advertising, how Internet has been her tool to learn and connect, and her love for ads. She wants people to love ads too as a “meaningful experience or exchange, not a corporate apparatus.”

In terms describing what you do, how would you describe your roles?

I am a full stack digital marketer so I manage the digital department at an integrated PR marketing communications agency. More or less if it happens on the internet is something that I have some purview over. I cut my teeth on the bread and butter of SEO (search engine optimization), social media, web design, and copyrighting. I build out from there with a really heavy emphasis on persuasion marketing using psychology to increase conversion and analytics using math. I think I take a pretty scientific approach to it.

What is your background? Do you have a background in all those fields or is it a passion of yours?

It’s kind of funny. I don’t really have a background in marketing prior to actually doing it. My degrees are in English Literature and Philosophy. I was not ever really in Business or Marketing or Advertising, but I started building websites when I was 11 or 12 years old. My first website, I think I was 11, was a Pokémon website. I had some friends on the Internet who also loved Pokémon. The weakness of the gateway system at that time was that in order to be able to play against somebody, you had to be standing right next to them. I was like ‘that’s garbage because I don’t have a lot of friends in my immediate periphery because I am a weird little kid, but I have lots of friends that I can stand on the internet’ because I think I was like one of the first kids on my block to have computer.’ So I built websites where I could host my Pokémon data and then run simulation Pokémon matches against other nerdy children out there. I started coding when I was about 11.

How did you learn?

I just looked it up. There were a bunch of tutorials on the Internet and I just looked it up. There was no WordPress; I just coded in just straight HTML, XHTML because that was the thing back then and I was into that. I had fun with it. I played around a lot. Then I moved on to college and studied the Humanities and I studied classics and I studied communication. I was a debater. I was also a speaker and I did copywriting to make extra money.

Then one day I was fucking around on the Internet on Facebook, which was a relatively new thing back then. It was before it was opened up to everybody and it was just for college students. So I was messing around on it and this was back when you could make Like pages, just like anything, like the cool side of the pillow; you could make these Like pages so I made one. Just being a condescending English major, I should have made some trademarking around it because you now can Google it to this day and find it everywhere, I wrote ‘I like long text messages because I appreciate a complete thought.’ I just thought that was hysterical and I liked it, 13 of my friends liked it and that was cool and I walked away from it. You know I won’t do like a slow build up here but within 3 or 4 months that page had 1.6 million people following it.

This was the precursor to Facebook pages as something that was done for businesses or brands or locations.. So I had all these people following me and advertisers started reaching out to me… offering to post links to their online t-shirt shops. The e-commerce sites that were sarcastic in nature, these smart ass t-shirts shops would say ‘we’ll give you X dollars to order, we’ll give you 15% commission and kick back.’ So I basically started doing affiliated marketing through that Facebook page, just goofing off and I ended up making a substantial amount of money figuring out affiliate marketing and running that page.

Is that page still available today?

No, I actually got out at a good time because Facebook completely changed the way they do their pages now. You are no longer able to create a page that represents an idea or sentence. That taught me something important abut social media and about Internet marketing and making money on the web which is don’t build your house on someone else’s land. If you build your model around someone else’s platform like Facebook and they change their platform and they disrupt your model, you’re screwed. Sorry.

That’s why email has always been such a dominant format cause you always own our email list. If people subscribe to your stuff or whatever, you always have your email list. It was an accidental breakneck speed education I would say.

 Is your specialization neuro-marketing?

I am a specialist in it but I am not practicing specialist. I sort of moved on to broader topics and here’s why: there is not that many people in Florida talking about neuromarketing. I think that a lot of people in marketing come from two angles: they come from a communication and a journalist angle, or they come at it from a sales angle, and neither of those is sufficient to really grapple with the complex problems that neuromarketing tries to solve.

I’ve spent a few years as part of a passion project really getting into neuromarketing and learning as much about it as I could. I even consulted with a neuroscientist in California. But there is really nobody else talking about it.

I became fascinated by it and the reason that I originally became fascinated by it is because I thought it was bullshit. I was part right, because what people say about neuromarketing and what people think about neuro-marketing is mostly bullshit. Someone posted a video a few days ago about subliminal marketing and how advertisers found the ways to hide the word ‘sex’ in Coke cans and that make Coke cans sell more. No, it doesn’t! Nobody thinks that. They experimented with shit like that in the 1960s and 1970s. Unless you are selling condoms there is no business advantage in trying to show dirty stuff in your ads, so when I see stuff like subliminal messaging, trying to get you to buy stuff by showing stuff about sex, that’s garbage, that’s total pseudoscience and that’s garbage.

There are principles though that we learn from the study of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing really is not a practice, the practice is in learning from neuroscience and occasionally being able to conduct real tests, which are very costly… Some of the principles that I went over in my talk like contrasts, things like narrative instead of statistics, pain marketing, fear marketing, show people what their life is like without your product and then show them what is like with your product. I guarantee you, if somebody is not doing that and starts doing that, the sales are going to double. The sales are going to double and if they are not, call me Sally.

 It is interesting and it seems like a topic that should be addressed more. People want to know what the foundation for all of this is. They want science to be behind this. They want the evidence.

John Wanamaker said once ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.’ I only think that neuromarketing combined with analytics seeks to answers that question. With either one, with good data analysis or with neuromarketing I think you can figure out where you are wasting money because with neuromarketing you learn which messages are more effective before you send them out, whereas data, metrics, analytics… can help you understand on where you are making and losing money once your campaign is live. And that’s helpful with an ongoing digital campaign, with something you can start and stop and turn on and edit. But if you are doing a study because you are going to spend 30 million dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial or whatever it is, you kind of want that information up front. You can’t turn it on and adjust it on the fly. You need to film that shit way, way in advance. It’s those types of campaigns that benefit the most from neuromarketing tests. Pretty much everything else you just learn from what is already being learned.

From your particular experience, what do you see to be the trends to look out in the future?

I’ll tell you: chat app marketing, for messaging apps. You are going to see brands trying to get on WhatsApp, on Kik and other one to one messaging apps.

Video has been blowing up year over year, its still headed in that direction. The best investment a small business owner can make right now or somebody who wants to be a digital marketing consultant or start an e-commerce or retail business, the best investment they can make right now is invest on a nice camera. Because visual content is the future for the Internet, absolutely.

How do you see yourself in the future? Are there are aspects of marketing that interest you more?

What I like to do is being involved at developing new types of ads, new types of marketing messages, new ways to communicate with people. When you go and you spend money to place ads on the Internet, that is where the money of digital advertising in. It’s not in SEO or organic social media management. It’s in content and good content and it’s in paid media. That’s where 95% of the money is. If anybody else tells you differently they are either lucky or lying.

I love marketing, I love digital marketing, I love the Internet, I’ve always have. I have a very philosophical take on the Internet and the opportunities it presents and part of it is sentimental. (Growing up) kids would come up and say, ‘can Alex come out and play’ and I would go tell my mom ‘can you say that I can’t go out and play’, ‘can you say that I am grounded so I can’t go out’? I did not have the spine to say ‘no fuck off.’ I do now.

I wanted to be liked but I also did not wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to do my own stuff. The Internet to me gave me a lot of opportunities to get in touch and to learn stuff. Almost everything that I’ve learned about marketing, media and social and everything, I learned online, I learned by doing. I’ve taken online classes, I’ve gone to seminars, I’ve gone to conferences, done a couple of workshops. But mostly I just read, and tried and failed and tried again, failed and read and that’s just it. That’s it. And I failed Algebra 2 twice in middle school and high school so if I can do it, absolutely anybody can do it.

I think I am just so stubborn that I won’t stop doing something until I get my way.

Follow Alex Wall on Twitter @AlexlWall

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Interview with Crime Reporter Justin George

While many journalists have been forced to shift away from the field, Justin George remains stronger than ever. The Colorado native is in one of the most challenging beats in a notoriously violent city: crime and police in Baltimore. As a reporter for The Baltimore Sun he has covered high profile stories such as the recent city riots and the story of Adnan Syed, which became highly popular due to the Serial podcast to which he also contributed.

When I met Justin, he was a general reporter at the Pulitzer Prize winner newspaper the St Petersburg Times (now known as the Tampa Bay Times). During his nine years there he uncovered tough stories that needed to be told such as the investigative series on sexual abuse allegations at a developmentally disabled group home and a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer search for the killer of his son. Before that he worked at the Daily Press and the Daily Camera.

This autumn, Justin is heading to Marquette University as a Public Service Journalism fellow to lead a group of student researchers. I wanted to find out how he perceives journalism today and most of all, what motivates him amid what seems as a world surrounded by bad news.

How would you describe what you do?

I am a crime reporter and I cover mostly Baltimore police. My job is to essentially cover crime. Every day Baltimore police sends out a crime list (of what) occurred last night, usually the very serious ones like murders and shootings. I look at those every day and I try to find out who the victims are, look for trends. I am also keeping track of what is going on the department, how they are enforcing crime, how they are trying to deal with the trends, what is going on as far as politically in the city… It’s a combination of a lot of things… I interview a lot of police, I go out on the streets when I can and I try to interview victims in neighborhoods and see how crime affects them.

I’ve always viewed my job as more than just crime. I think crime affects a lot of things: it affects business growth, it affects quality of life, it affects population growth in the city… This is actually a health issue in the city.

How do you prepare for stories? How do you get your leads and identify what makes a story?

You just look for compelling stories about victims, or about suspects, things that are very unusual. But you also look for trends… If there are a bunch of crimes occurring in a neighborhood…If police are taking different tactics (such as) doing more foot patrols to try to meet residents and also suppress crime, do a story on that…We had the riots here and that has driven some of the violence that has occurred because of the looting of pharmaceuticals. So these are all little things that you pull out and you try to understand why. That’s always been key, understanding why things happen.

In terms of the perception of the public of the job of the media, for example when the people say the media is exaggerating, how do you feel about that?

The media gets beat up a lot now but I also think that regardless of it, (people) know that we are doing a public service and there is no doubt about it because they contact us, they are talking to us on Twitter and they understand that we are getting them information. I find most readers are honestly very thankful and they are very helpful… They want to understand too and they want to know why. They look to us to try to find out why.

(…) You have some trolls out there who say that the media is an issue and they are the problem. At times we make mistakes but we also try to acknowledge those things and be transparent. I know that is an issue in general but in Baltimore I think people are craving information. They want us.

Why did you wanted to become a journalist?

That’s a good question. I always liked to write, I think that was important. My dad actually worked at a newspaper. He was actually in the mailroom; he was not a writer but he put together newspapers so as child he would bring home the paper from the midnight shift… I would wake up every morning and read it, read the sports section. I think that always influenced me. I was always interested in writing and I was also very idealistic. I have a sense of right and wrong that I think is important to me. Everybody has a different sense of right and wrong but to me justice is something that is important.

Could you describe one of the biggest challenges you have had and what did you learn from it?

There’s been a lot. I think you always try to learn something from all the stories you spend a lot of time doing. Thinking of one that comes of the top of my head is that me and my crime partner who also covers crime, Justin Fenton, did a series on a summer of violence a couple of years ago. We looked at the people that were affected by the shooting and homicides that have gone one in the summer… We stretched out across the city and we looked for different people: victims, people in the neighborhood who have been affected, police. It was just really interesting because I think what that show was just how crime does impact a city. It impacts a city in every level and it impacts people in every level.

What stood out to me the most was speaking to a father and a son who had lost a mother and just the fact at how he was trying to hold the household together as his kid was a teenager and meanwhile the father was working all the time and trying to be a mother too and it just struck me how the bottles of Tide were on the living room floor. He was trying to do everything and trying to keep up the house too. But he had sworn that he was going to take care of his son. It was interesting, (actually) it was not interesting, it was sad to see what a hole had been left, what violence had taken.

With all these stories you cover, how do you keep a sense of optimism?

I would not say there is optimism but there is reward and the reward is that you are giving people who have been killed a voice for the first time. You are making their lives known to other people. These people may have lived lives out of the limelight but for once people are going to understand who they were and some of (the victims) had done already incredible selfless things. Sometimes is a cautionary tale of what not to do. Your are also trying to get these people’s faces out front to try to spur people to come forward and solve these crimes. That’s important too, that killers know that these people are not forgotten and that people are paying attention.

I’ve always remember a conversation we had in Tampa when you mentioned that what you liked about the St Pete Times is that they gave reporters time to develop a story. Now that in the past few years journalists are expected to do many things in a short period of time, do you think this is still possible?

It’s possible, it’s harder and the fact is that your bosses want to give you that time and your editors want the best stories. But the problem is there is less staff and there is a lot of news so time is very precious and its really difficult… If you look at the Sun we have an investigative team and our editors have given them time to work on very important studies and it has really paid off. They’ve given me time. I mean they are allowing me to go on a project for nine months. That’s phenomenal, that’s losing me, a pretty big producer, for that long. It is still important, is still valued in good newspapers like the Sun, it is still valued at St Pete Times, it’s just a lot more difficult.

What do you think about the evolution of journalism? Do you think it really is evolving or do you think it’s the perception of people?

The entire landscape has changed in a few years. I think journalism is very different. We are asked to do social media, we are asked to Tweet, Instagram and Facebok and get information out quickly. We are writing things as soon as we get to the office and updating things throughout the day. Before, we used to concentrate on the story that would go on the paper. Now we are concentrating on everything that’s going online as quickly as possible. So things have completely shifted… Everybody is more fluid. For better or worse we have to be faster and quicker. At the same time the quality can’t decrease so I think there a lot more pressure on us now so it makes it a lit more tricky.

I think technology helps. I think a lot of people think it hurts but I think it helps a lot when you take a picture from a crime scene and you Tweet it out, at least when you get back to the office I think you can look at that picture and describe what the scene is like. You can make it work for you.

If a student is going to school right now and says I want to be a journalist, what is your advice for them?

I think you should go for it if you are really passionate about it. I think people will tell you that you are not going to get paid a lot, (that) it’s a tough business and that is all true, but at the same time how many people do you know who actually love their job. If you are really passionate about writing and reporting, go for it. If you work really hard you can still be very successful at it. I would never discourage somebody from going into it if they are interested in it. I do think that they need to make sure they understand the commitment and sacrifice that would take…but you keep going and and you keep working and you can succeed.you keep working and you can succeed.

Follow Justin George on Twitter @justingeorge

Follow the author @yadicarocaro