According to a report published this week by advertising and public relations giant WPP, Cuba will take at least four to five years before it emerges as a significant consumer market for brands seeking exposure to the island nation’s once (and still – to some degree) forbidden population.
While Cuba’s brand landscape is highly appealing for companies seeking to capitalize on a rare blank canvas of new consumers, there is a more immediate appeal that many of today’s forward thinking brands are tapping into even now and in unexpected ways.
A gradual reorientation of the economy is under way, but WPP experts predict that even if change continues at the current pace, it will take four to five years for it to become clear how markets will operate, how contracts will be enforced and how flows of investment will be permitted and managed. – David Roth & Mark Povey, WPP Executives
Like a tree about to bear fruit, Cuba is slowly emerging as one of the coolest “country brands” in the world. Cuba’s colorful array of faces and white sandy beaches appeal to companies hoping to capture her natural and human gifts and have it rub off on them (cool by association) by attracting consumers’ attention in markets outside the island nation.
References to Cuba’s past and present in marketing content are suggestive of novelty and perhaps even invoke a sense of exclusivity by channeling Cuba’s “forbidden fruit” quality.
Today, there are two types of foreign brand interactions when it comes to Cuba: novelty seekers and long gamers.
Large and small brands are at work exploring Cuba’s potential to enhance their brands on an experimental basis or, most often, to garner short-term benefits by associating with a hot travel destination with exotic appeal.
“Swimsuits for All,” the self-proclaimed “leader in swimwear for curvy women” recently traveled to Cuba in search of the magic touch. Sexy, exotic, erotic – Cuba is all the things in a country that Swimsuits for All hopes to be for plus-size swim wear.
Perry Ellis, a publicly-traded fashion house based on Miami, Florida and owner of Penguin®, among other recognizable brands, has launched two Cuba-related brands, Havanera® and Cubavera®. Both brands evoke the chic-style of the casual male. The company prefers to use the term “Latin” to describe the brand appeal for consumers.
“Inspired by the passion and intensity of Cuban coffee ritual,” Nespresso USA, a unit of food giant Nestlé, introduced its Cafecito de Cuba (a/k/a Cubanía) brand, a limited edition, single serve coffee in U.S. markets in 2016.
Guillaume Le Cunff, president of Nespresso USA, said in a statement last year that it’s good to be the first company to provide Cuban coffee to the U.S. market. “The exotic, forbidden aspect of the coffee is a lure itself,” he added.
At launch, Nespresso advertised their creative credentials in Spinal Tap-like fashion: “Breaking the Nespresso record of intensity by going one step beyond the Kazaar Grand Cru, Cubanía reaches level 13.”
No mass market opportunity would be complete without the cruise industry. All the cruise industry giants are enticed by the opportunity to align their brands with Cuba’s emerging cool.
Earlier this year, Royal Caribbean added 13 itineraries to Cuba, the largest schedule of any U.S. cruise line to date. Other cruise companies traveling to Cuba include Norwegian Cruise Lines, Pearl Seas Cruises, and most recently, Carnival Cruise Lines. The mass market cruise ships are adding single-day stops to existing Caribbean itineraries was a way to capture Cuba’s novelty quality.
Mass market cruise ship tourism remains uncertain due to Cuba’s lack of infrastructure.
Bacardi®, a Bermuda-based company originally founded in Cuba, has over two hundred brands and labels and is the largest privately-owned spirits company in the world.
The company has been locked in an epic struggle to re-gain control over one of the world’s most famous rum trademarks, Havana Club®. The trademark has been the subject of extensive trademark litigation in the US, Spain, and World Trade Organization
In January 2016, the U.S. government awarded a trademark for Havana Club® to the Cuban government. The Wall Street Journal said, “The move is expected to reignite longstanding tension between Bacardi Ltd. and the Cuban government”, and Bacardi announced plans to appeal the decision.
In the meantime, Bacardi has launched a U.S. version of Havana Club® using its own version of the label. The U.S. embargo against Cuba restricts rum imports from Cuba, so it appears Bacardi wants American consumers to develop an affinity for its version of Havana Club® before the embargo is lifted.
The Long Game
If culture is transmitted socially, then is opportunity transmitted with technology?
This is likely the thesis behind two giant U.S technology companies active in Cuba today – Google and Airbnb.
Google’s presence in Cuba is small compared to its size and range of activities in other emerging countries. Judging by recent news, Google appears to be cultivating a long-term relationship with Cuba based on high ideals and long-term opportunity rather than short-term market share and margins.
The company recently produced a virtual reality (VR) short film about Cuba.
The film’s subject matter leaps back (over Castro’s 1959 revolution) to a historical figure, José Martí, who is today considered one of Cuba’s national heroes for his commitment to and vision for Cuba’s independence during the tumultuous final years of the 19th century. Martí is referred to as the “Apostle of the Cuban Revolution” and his zeal for independence coincided with a love of the United States, where he spent more than half his life.
360-degree virtual reality, the technology used to tell Marti’s story, represents a leap forward and a place where Google no doubt intends to lead its flock. Yet the film’s editorial message has more to do with replacing suspicion with trust in U.S.-Cuba relations and comes much closer to human value than to material payoff in an effort to pull the mantle of darkness away.
The film and related efforts to highlight awareness about Cuban history represent a joint effort by Google and the Office of the Historian of Havana – along with a number of other institutions and artistic contributors.
Today, Google has a single public-facing presence on the ground in Cuba and has recently been given permission by the Cuban government to house servers on the island to support users of its services there.
Like Google, Airbnb is in Cuba for the long-game. The digital room rental platform is a perfect fit for travelers in search of a real, authentic Cuban travel experience.
Airbnb is vocal about, “being built for a purpose.”
According to Alex Mimiziani, Airbnb’s EMEA marketing director, “It’s about delivering real, tangible value to peoples’ lives and the world at large.”
She goes on to say, “Airbnb could contribute to a movement where we are increasing cross-cultural empathy, decreasing cultural boundaries and ultimately creating a world where seven billion people can belong anywhere.”
What’s different about Airbnb’s success in Cuba is that getting to scale breaks down rigid cultural boundaries and, on an individual level, allows Cubans to discover the power of their own inner resources as a way shape the future – perhaps for the first time in generations. And for visitors, it quenches a thirst for authentic travel experiences and the memories of a real cultural exchange.
Airbnb’s impact in Cuba could pry open traditional thinking about what Mimiziani describes as, “the ill experience in mass tourism.”
Last year, according to Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, “Cuba is the fastest-growing country on Airbnb ever in the history of our platform.”
Today, the company has more than 4,000 listings in Cuba – equivalent to about a dozen hotels that would have taken years to build. With the U.S. embargo virtually cutting off the possibility for large-scale infrastructure development, Airbnb’s web-enabled platform is emerging as a vital tool for powering growth in Cuba’s tourism sector.
Expanding on its plans to re-imagine humanity, the company has embarked on a new program called Experiences. The idea is to facilitate deep engagement between hosts and travelers in such areas as sports, nature, social impact, entertainment, food and arts.
The Cuba Journal spoke with Jordi Torres, Airbnb’s Regional Director – LATAM, who said about the Experiences program, “Since we launched, Havana has been the market with the most bookings and demand.”