Though Hispanics make up the largest submarket for financial services in the United States, efforts to sell insurance to them through banks, Hispanic or otherwise, have been irregular at best — and few insurers are yet going the extra mile to help banks in Hispanic communities sell their products.

Even Banco Popular Inc., the largest and best-known bank in Puerto Rico and the highest-profile Hispanic bank in the United States, only recently started offering insurance to its customers in Puerto Rico, and does not sell it elsewhere in the United States.

Jim Murphy, Banco Popular’s senior vice president and director of insurance in the United States, said that many large insurers have not made a great attempt to help banks that target Hispanics.

Also, he said, rather than handling affinity marketing from the home office, many insurers depend on their agency forces to do it. “The insurers are relying on agents that are in the Hispanic marketplace to figure it out,” Mr. Murphy said. An agency in a Hispanic area usually has at least one staff member or agent who speaks Spanish, he said. “The agents develop whatever market they can.”

That is not much help to banks, though, said Mr. Murphy. He added that Banco Popular is months away from offering insurance in any of the states.

Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority ethnic group. According to the 2000 census, 13% of the population — 35.3 million — consider themselves Hispanic. And in some major cities, Spanish-speakers make up over 25% of the population.

But neither banks nor insurers have done much to help Hispanic customers buy insurance with ease.

Many insurers translate their brochures into multiple languages, including Spanish, but insurance and banking executives as well as consultants call that just a first step.

“Translating a brochure is an aid — that’s it,” said Val Jordan, president of Belchertown, Mass.-based consulting firm Jordan & Jordan Associates, which works with Hispanic banks in the United States and in Puerto Rico.

“There are plenty of good translation companies that can do that for an insurer, and every [insurer or bank] can duplicate that service,” said Jorge Enderica, sales director for U.S. Hispanic markets at Pan American Life Insurance Co. in New Orleans. “But you can’t just translate marketing material and expect to sell the products.”

Banco Popular is “looking at carriers that have the back office to handle Spanish calls,” Mr. Murphy said. “What are the insurer’s capabilities?”

Michael Wells, vice chairman at Lansing, Mich.-based Jackson National Life Insurance Co., which does a substantial amount of marketing through banks, acknowledged that its only outreach to the Hispanic market has been translating its brochures.

“That’s not a business plan; we realize that,” Mr. Wells said. “It’s an error that the industry as a whole has not moved further, and we’d all be foolish if we didn’t move forward. Hispanics are one of the largest, if not the largest, group in California. The assets are there. Now the industry has to catch up.”

Pan American Life is one insurer that offers the services that a bank targeting Spanish-speaking customers would need. It focuses on work site distribution, and three of its agreements are with banks that target Hispanics in heavily Spanish-speaking areas: Miami, southwest Texas, and Puerto Rico.

Mr. Enderica said the work site is the most efficient way to reach Hispanics looking for insurance. “The vast majority are not in the upper-income bracket, so financial advisers aren’t reaching out to them and no one’s visiting them at home” to sell life insurance, he said.

“Direct mail isn’t good either, because life insurance and disability insurance are too complex to sell by mail, so the work site is a solid alternative,” he added.

About half of Pan American Life’s 400 home office employees, including reps, enrollers, and administrators, speak Spanish. “That gives us very strong back-office support” for the market, Mr. Enderica said.

Raymond Celaya, head of Allstate Corp.’s ethnic marketing group in Northbrook, Ill., said that Allstate does not have affinity marketing programs designed to help banks reach their Hispanic customers, though he would not rule it out.

“We see the bank market as an opportunity, but we’re not there yet,” Mr. Celaya said. “Anyone who doesn’t see that opportunity is blind.”

He said, however, that the agency channel is still much better than banks for marketing to Hispanics. The community’s “economic development is not in the same place [as the mainstream],” he said. “Bank usage [among Hispanics] is still at a lower maturity than for the market at large. When will it reach critical mass? When is it the right time? Who would be the right partner?”

That would have to be a bank in a region heavily populated with Hispanics, he said.

He added that Allstate does not do work-site marketing but he agreed that it is a great way to reach Hispanics.

The market’s employees are “coming into the workforce at the entry level, which means they are less likely to have good benefit packages,” he said. “Their need for robust life and health packages is greater, and the work site is a good way to reach them.”

Ms. Jordan said that work site marketing is effective because of the trust involved between Hispanic workers and their employer.

“There is a sense of community involvement when you can buy a banking or insurance product at work,” she said. “The individual can go forward with confidence that it’s in their best interest when it’s done through the workplace.”

Allstate does not market at work sites because its first contact with customers is usually through property/casualty products — mostly, auto policies — which as a rule are not sold that way, Mr. Celaya said.

“You can’t drive off the auto lot without an auto policy, so that’s our lead,” he said. “Then we reach them with property insurance, and finally we’ll get into life insurance.”

Mr. Wells of Jackson National Life said, “In all fairness, only now have banks learned to reach their customers as a unit with specific insurance products. Now they’ll improve on reaching subsets, and we’re going to have to join them in making sure that gets accomplished.”

Ms. Jordan concurred. “We’re very much in the beginning stages of banks-in-insurance as a whole,” she said. “This is a subsection of that. You see little inroads, where someone in policy service speaks Spanish, but there is a long way to go. However, for banks in heavily Hispanic markets, [selling insurance] is going to have to happen.”

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