Brand Cuba: what can it teach us?

Campaign News | Thursday, 21 September 2006

South African marketing expert Carin Dean-Wales finds plenty to think about in Cuba

Cuba is an anomaly in the world of branding, both reinforcing and negating everything that we have grown to accept about brands.

It is a rare advertising- and commercial-free zone, with stores filled with generic products and services that strive only to be on a par with ‘competitors’. Advertisements for beer and soap are non-existent. The triumphant system has replaced the dominant capitalist competition with its promotion of citizens’ revolutionary education and an ethical emulation among enterprises.

But despite living in this No Brand Land, Cuba has managed to build an amazingly strong country brand without doing a single other thing other than living it.

The Cuban ‘idea’ has transcended decades of political isolation, material deprivation, faltered support from the Soviet Union, and the “Special Period” that followed. One cannot deny the influence of the vociferous, voluble, charismatic dictator, speaking endlessly about everything - a perpetual state-of-the-union message - the unrelenting nature of which has protected the message and prevented its disintegration. Talk about branding! Fidel is a brilliant marketer.

Yet it is not only him who has sold Cubans their idea of themselves. Cuba is actually a place where time is remembered, not forgotten as Westerners often propose. The ancient shared values are woven organically within the Cuban culture’s fabric. Brand Cuba lives in the minds and the hearts of every Cuban person.

As a result, its local brands (Romeo y Jiulietta, Cohiba, Corona, Havana Club and even Castro), riding on the wave of the national unity and culture, have become strong, if not luxury brands internationally, based on the sensory idea of what Cuba represents. Even Bacardi, which abandoned the Cuban ship decades ago, still rides on its origins in Cuba.

There are no advertisements for Cuba, no billboards exploding with the Havana Club rum brand, no direct marketing campaigns inducing trial of Cohiba cigars. This country epitomises Martin Lindstrom’s idea of “Brand Sense” and Millward Brown’s global survey linking branding and sensory awareness.

Amazingly, this communist country that has vilified capitalism and consumerism for decades has managed to:

maintain a single message,

promulgated by senior management consistently,

bought up and lived by all the citizens,

without stripping away creativity and imagination,

been bundled into an alluring brand essence,

and disseminated through sensory cues that cover touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.

With only four years to go to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the drive to build Brand South Africa we have to ask ourselves a few questions:

What is our single message as propagated down to us from the top of our country management?

What is the sound, sight, taste, smell and touch that represents South Africa?

Do we know? Does Brand South Africa know? Does the world know?

*Carin Dean-Wales is strategic director at Scarab Origination.

This is a short version of an article which will be published in full in the 2006 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, due to be launched to the marketing community in October. For more information, please contact Ken Preston on 011-442 2366,,

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