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Smartphone biz gets a taste of identity politics, courtesy of JLo

Viva Movil will need more than an entertainment superstar to become the smartphone shopping destination of choice for Latinos.

Jennifer Lopez on Viva Movil and Verizon Wireless
Jennifer Lopez on Viva Movil at Verizon Wireless' CTIA 2013 event.
Verizon/Screenshot by CNET

There she was, greeting the Las Vegas audience at the CTIA Wireless show on Wednesday with that trademark million-dollar smile. Meet Jennifer Lopez, actress, singer, and product pitchwoman extraordinaire, and now co-founder and creative director for Viva Movil, a self-styled "premium retailer" for Verizon Wireless products and services targeting Latino consumers.

"As an entrepreneur, empowering the Latino community is at the core of what I choose to have my businesses stand for and exemplify," Lopez said during her presentation to the CTIA audience. She added that Latino smartphone customers don't have any "specific place," thus leaving Viva Movil to fill the void and "revolutionize the entire mobile experience."

It's that simple.

Snark notwithstanding, let's give Lopez her due. Like Madonna, she has brilliantly cultivated her personal brand in an image-obsessed consumer culture where sex and beauty are worth their weight in gold. And more power to her for that -- or in the immortal words of Max Bialoystock, when you've got it baby, flaunt it, flaunt it.

But that doesn't mean Lopez isn't pitching a dumb idea.

The assumption is that Viva Movil can tap into a Latino zeitgeist. But there was nothing in Lopez's canned pitch that was unique or revealing. The presentation was more about the potential windfall which was to be had. When you crunch the raw numbers, it's easy to understand why an entertainment star would be interested in collaborating on this sort of venture: One in six Americans is now a Hispanic, and by 2050 demographers expect the Hispanic population to number more than 132 million. Those are big numbers, and that's why wireless company Brightstar, and Moorhead Communications -- the largest of Verizon's premium retailers with 850 stores -- are partnering with Lopez. (Verizon serves as the company's exclusive wireless provider.)

At this stage, Viva Movil is more about promoting the face behind the brand than it is about revolutionizing retail; the site's home page includes a big link to Lopez's "passion for fashion," featuring such useful accoutrements as luxury covers made from skins taken from ostriches and crocodiles and who knows what.

The addition of a play area for children in the stores along with the promise of bilingual salespeople are nice touches, but a lot of wireless retailers in big cities already employ Spanish speakers. Strip away Lopez's star attraction and you're left with just another store front.

I see a couple of problems. The first is the decision to retrofit a marketing campaign with an overlay of identity politics when it's not entirely clear what the typical "Latino" customer is supposed to look like. Are we talking about someone who arrived here from Mexico or Managua? San Juan or Santiago? A working mom living in San Francisco's Mission District? Or former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson? The point being, this gets complicated. Maybe a more uniform definition would have applied 50 years ago. But not today. And it's simply a marketer's imagination to claim that a one size-fits-all profile still exists.

Also, we're essentially talking about hitting a moving target. In the mid-2000s, a well-funded company called Helio tried to win over what it contended was a cool, tech-savvy youth market. Helio was a joint venture between EarthLink and the South Korean phone company SK Telecom, and it made a big splash when it launched. Management claimed that this demographic was somehow special but yet ignored by the "mainstream." These well-heeled hipsters were just dying for a company that could appeal to their particular needs -- in this case the supposed answer being cutting-edge handsets and feature-rich data applications. Turned out the young hipsters' tastes changed as they matured. That was just one of the reasons, but long story short, Helio wound up as yet another expensive bust.

There is no shortage of U.S. companies that have made fortunes focusing their sales pitches at myriad immigrant groups. But the history of America is also the history of cultural cross-pollination. (Remember this one? "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's real Jewish rye bread.") People still celebrate their ethnic identities, but the pull of the big American acculturation machine ultimately wins out.

If Lopez et al really want to make a splash, they need to, well, think different. Just like some other smartphone company that's out there.