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April 2018


Cuba and the Heart of Marketing

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I just returned from Cuba. Wow! That pretty much says it. What an intriguing country it is…

The unrelenting history of one revolution after another. The people desperately trying to free themselves from imperialist rule. Finally Castro’s promised land. But so many promises haven’t been kept that the promised land now looks more like a wasteland. Poverty, repression, and lack of opportunity and freedom all a heavy weight.

Yet… the Cubans are resilient, passionate, and resourceful. Almost every Cuban I spoke to expressed warmth toward Americans. They see the issues between the two countries as a problem of the governments, not the people.

Because they have so little – 90% of their salaries go to the government while they’re provided with housing, rationed food, and free education and healthcare – they’ve cultivated an incredible resourcefulness.

That’s how they’ve managed to keep all the 50s cars going. What a throwback to ride in a 1955 Chevy!

How do they do it? By hobbling things together until they work. In the case of cars, using parts from newer cars and all kinds of things. They can’t get rubber to repair tires so they use the rubber from flip-flops.

Not only are the Cubans resourceful, but they’re also super creative. The music, dance, and art scenes are flourishing. I read that Cuba has the highest number of artists per capita in the world.

In this fascinating land of so many dichotomies, I was struck by the absence of advertising. There was hardly a sign of marketing or advertising except for highway billboards of the Castros and countless posters of Che Guevara.

It wasn’t until I got home that I figured out that the communist government doesn’t promote consumerism. There isn’t much competition between businesses. And the government, which controls newspapers and broadcast media, doesn’t allow commercial spots. It’s not a supply and demand economy, so there’s no reason to advertise.

But with Cuba’s recent promotion of tourism, they’ve had to start to market in rudimentary ways. The main kind of marketing is person-to-person and the storefronts themselves.

The Cubans can hustle. In front of almost every restaurant in Old Havana, someone was perched near the door with a menu motioning to the passersby. I didn’t mind because I actually had some interesting conversations with them and it wasn’t high-pressure. I found the same in many stores.

How refreshing! Personal connections, interesting conversations, and not being bombarded by ads.

If a business wants to stand out, because they have so little to work with, they’re forced to be creative. So many buildings are in major disrepair. But no matter how worn a building is, shops find ways to create fun, whimsical storefront displays out of things like soda cans and magazine cut outs.

I left Cuba with a renewed spirit about the heart of marketing. To feel my experience of being drawn into a store or restaurant because of the person I talked to or the creativity of a simple storefront presentation. These are the building blocks of marketing; everything else is icing on the cake.