Marketing in Communist-ruled Cuba: from guerrilla to mainstream?

Tue May 31, 2016 8:44am EDT
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By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - For half a century after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Cuba's marketing was limited to patriotic propaganda and its most ubiquitous brand was not Coca-Cola but late revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, daubed on walls across the island.

Now, market-style reforms to expand the private sector mean a blossoming of small businesses from cobblers to barbers and bars seeking to haul in customers.

Havana streets that used to be pitch dark at night are lit up by neon signs advertising restaurants or spare rooms in private homes.

"It was unknown territory, going through the steps of opening up a business, where promotion is key," said Erick Carballo, 26, who opened a beauty salon in Havana last August.

Outside, a sign reads "Kerabana" in blue and the walls inside are painted cheerful orange. Mirrors create an airy feel while flyers list the prices of manicures and waxes.

In a stark sign of the change, Martin Sorrell, the fast-talking boss of the world's biggest advertising group WPP, gave aspiring creatives a master class on the industry and how they can develop it on the communist-run island.

He brandished data, graphs and drawings of wine labels to explain the value of brands to a rapt audience that grew up insulated from the 20th century's branding revolution.

"Cuba has amazing beaches, and produces excellent rum. But many other countries have beaches and make rum. So the question is 'why Cuban?'" asked Sorrell. "The answer, again, is investment in the brand."   Continued...

Tourists take pictures under a neon sign of a restaurant in downtown Havana, Cuba, May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini