Cinco de Mayo: Small Victory for Mexico, Big Win for Advertising

By Luis Miguel Messianu, Creative Chairman-CEO Alma, Miami

Let me start by setting the record straight.

No, it’s not Mexican Independence Day!

No, it’s not the equivalent of the Fourth of July!

No, it’s not a day in which we celebrate our freedom!


You can say that Cinco de Mayo is a “crown import,” and we pretty much owe it to Corona (Crown) — a Mexican beer. It might have been the effect of too much beer, or maybe just too much marketing. Blame it on the guac, the fajitas, the uplifting sounds of mariachi bands, the colorful Mexican flags, the margaritas, the beer … and more beer. And don’t forget the lime — another clever marketing stunt that demonstrates, once again, that advertising really works! Other beer brands have followed suit, but this “historic event” has turned so proprietary for Corona that nobody else comes close. Corona has even gone as far as to write “Cinco” with the very distinctive Corona font! 

Cinco de Mayo (pronounced: [siŋ-kō-də-ˈmī-ō]; Spanish for "Fifth of May") is a celebration held on May 5th. The date is observed to commemorate the Mexican army's unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. This Mexican holiday is still celebrated in Mexico, but the local tributes are far from the enormous celebration that takes place in the United States, with all its restaurant specials, heavy up in media budgets behind advertising campaigns, and endless colorful promotions, just to name a few!

There are a few things you should know, my friends. Let me insist — it's not Mexican Independence Day. (The actual Mexican independence, incidentally, is celebrated on September 16th to commemorate the declaration of independence from Spain in 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla). Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican victory over France (of all countries). Spain, France and Great Britain invaded Mexico in late 1861, but after six months, Spain and Britain decided to pull out. Meanwhile, the U.S. Civil War was taking place north of the Mexican border, and the French chose to leverage the chaos and invade Mexico, which had been torn apart by war in the late 1850s. The French made inroads in April 1862, but in May, in the beautiful colonial town of Puebla — barely 85 miles east of Mexico City — a tiny Mexican army under the command of Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a much larger French contingent. It was a classic David-over-Goliath victory, and it has been celebrated ever since for its symbolism ... even though the French did eventually take over Mexico and established the short-lived Second Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian. Symbolic victory? Yes. Independence? Not so much. 

But in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become an astonishing marketing opportunity. In 2014, Cinco de Mayo became the biggest non-winter drinking day of the year, and it's one of the top five drinking holidays in general. In fact, the year before, in 2013, over $600 million dollars’ worth of beer was sold, which is significantly more beer than is sold on St. Patrick’s Day or Super Bowl Sunday, two events where beer consumption is at the center of the celebrations. And most of that beer is originally of Mexican “descent,” which has also meant that the Mexican import beer sector, thanks to Cinco de Mayo, has continued to grow and thrive north of the border. In fact, it’s experiencing the best sector growth in the American market, second only to American craft beer brands. 

So how did Cinco de Mayo make it from the town of Puebla to the U.S.? The holiday originally gained significance in America thanks to the growing push for Mexican American civil rights in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The Chicano movement formed in the ‘60s had the stated goal of empowering Mexican Americans to embrace their cultural heritage, and celebrating Cinco de Mayo became a useful tool in connecting these new citizens — the largest immigrant group in the U.S. — to the story of America as a whole. The Chicano movement was instrumental in spreading the celebration of this holiday to Mexican cultural hubs across America.

Even though this holiday gained popularity among Mexican immigrants in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it remained relatively insular. While more Mexican Americans began celebrating the holiday as a way to embrace the connection between Mexican and American culture, most other American groups had no idea the holiday existed. But in 1989, the San Antonio based Gambrinus Group, which were the regional importers of Corona and Grupo Modelo, launched a Cinco de Mayo themed advertising campaign encouraging Mexican Americans already celebrating the holiday to make it a priority on this day to drink Mexican beer. The campaign took a life of its own!

Oddly enough, what occurred in the following years was that instead of the holiday solidifying itself as a time to acknowledge the deep connection that America and Mexico share, it turned into a powerful excuse to drink Corona. By the late ‘90s, consuming Corona, as a way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, was the main — if not the only — way most people acknowledged the holiday’s existence. A huge coup for the Corona marketing team, no doubt. And we can easily assume at this point that there won’t be a “wall” that can stop the flow of this golden beer stream.

As the holiday has gained in popularity, its connection to the original meaning has continued to weaken, while its excuse to party has drastically increased. Much of this has to do not only with the adept marketing of companies like Corona — which heavily supports the brand around this day — but also the time of year in which the holiday falls. Early May represents the true start of spring in most of the nation, and most Americans are looking for an excuse to be outside celebrating in the sunshine. In short, making a big deal out of Cinco de Mayo is great for business. Top that off with the fact you always need the right accessory for every holiday: fireworks on the Fourth of July, turkey on Thanksgiving, and Corona beer on Cinco de Mayo. The company, which started in Mexico City in the early 1920s, has worked hard to identify Corona with Cinco de Mayo. And they've succeeded — in the United States, anyway.

In short, Cinco de Mayo celebrates a victory by a small band of Mexican soldiers on May 5,1862 against the French army led by Napoleon III. It was a short-lived victory — the French returned the following year and defeated the Mexicans — which may explain why the holiday is not a big deal in Mexico.

But, under Corona's influence, Mexican Americans started celebrating the holiday and, soon after, Corona and Cinco de Mayo became synonymous (kudos to them!!!). In fact, it's because of Corona that Cinco de Mayo has become more popular in the U.S than in Mexico. Call it “reverse retro-acculturation”!

Not that I’m a history buff, but my only hope is that I have poured enough facts in order for you to feel free to change your mind about Cinco de Mayo. Your fellow Latino friends will thank you, and most likely your liver will too. In this case, it’s not our past that will set us free! It’s the power of marketing which helps a brand like Corona make history! (We might as well refer to this as “branded history”).