Five meta marketing lessons from Cuba
Guillermo Mazier*, in Forbes
It’s 1959; the crowded streets are filled with screaming people, their hands raised, flags flying, revolutionary hymns playing harmoniously in the background. The stage is set for one of the most divisive, polarizing figures the world has ever seen. As he enters smiling and waving, only one thing is for sure: Things will never be the same. Or will they?
For 58 years, Fidel Castro had the Republic of Cuba tucked away (from Americans at least) as an unknown treasure. Known for its world-famous cigars, sugar sand beaches and a particular missile crisis, Cuba captured the world’s attention and recently has been fodder for a lot of conversation. In this case, it's about marketing.
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba for "educational" purposes, and I must admit, it was one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking trips of our lives. Within a span of five days, we took a six-hour bike ride through the picturesque streets of Havana, a six-hour horseback ride through what looked to be the backdrop for Jurassic Park (Viñales), and a two-hour boat ride to arguably a top 10 beach in the world (Cayo Blanco). It wasn’t until after we got home that I was able to process the experience and come up with its practical application for marketing.
Here are five meta marketing lessons from Cuba:
1) Solidarity doesn't have to be solid. There is unanimity among Cubans that their country is strong, and allegiance is palpable. People, however, are welcoming travelers with open arms to discover what’s long been hidden. Our interactions with locals seemed wanted as if they’d been waiting for years to tell their story. And their story is vivacious. It’s also tumultuous and rife with emotion. The solidarity among Cuba’s countrymen and women to foster an equitable, appealing and open travel policy isn’t 100% unanimous, but the landscape is shifting. Many realize and accept that marketing or promoting their country and assets isn’t going to please all; rather, it’s a paradigm shift for some to see that when outsiders are welcomed in, cultural and global differences melt into more unified visions of the world and its people.
2) Marketing needs to have a unified message. Marketing messages may never be perfect, but they need to align with your mission. Think thesis, or your main idea or claim. The Columbus, Ohio region’s “One of US” campaign illustrates this point eloquently (we previously worked on a different initiative for this region). “One of US” not only gives rise to the Columbus region itself as a conglomerate of successful businesses and organizations, but it signifies every participant as a national player (“US” meaning one or more people, and simultaneously, a reference to our great nation). It’s an overarching theme, or message, that holistically brings together the region, its businesses, and its people. To me, Cuba is still writing its country’s marketing thesis.
3) More smart talk, less heart talk. As it relates to marketing places, everyone believes their baby is the cutest. They (economic development organizations and destination marketing organizations) talk about how great their place is without providing context. “Our downtown is charming” is a prime example. The problem? Every single place across the globe avows the same, and it doesn’t work. Instead, places need to dig deeper to find what really, truly makes them stand apart from every other dot on the map. It’s hard to be different, but telling a smarter story trumps a softer one. “Grandiose squares, cobbled streets, history teeming with intrigue and untold magic, and drama of everyday life spilling into the colorful, rumba-infused streets.” It’s not Cuba’s marketing message, but it could be a start.
4) Keep the body, replace the engine. Fidel Castro’s 40-year ban on foreign vehicle imports is reason Cuba retains an ornate classic car “collection.” And although it’s now easier than ever to purchase a foreign-made car, we might not see Cubans, en masse, buying newer versions of their beloved old school Fords, Buicks and Chryslers. If they can preserve, fix, make new and continually enhance what’s worked for decades, that seems the better alternative than buying something that instantaneously loses value. It’s the same with marketing. If what you’re doing is working, persevere. But make concerted efforts to ever improve. We see this in action through digital, and adopting practices that make disseminating marketing messages faster, cheaper, and faster.
5) Hustle. Have a side gig. To find different revenue streams, keep the innovation faucet on and embrace the evolution. In Cuba, everyone is hustling, whether it’s to get you to go to a friend’s restaurant or embark on an unsolicited taxi ride. Apply this same mentality to marketing, and you’ve got a program of work that builds upon itself. Learn from the best. Absorb and understand why certain methodologies work. And then apply similar practices to your efforts. Don’t reinvent the wheel; instead, employ the marketing hustle where you mix your own ideas with proven methods from the world’s leaders. The outcome is likely to be an authentic and well-oiled marketing machine.
Cuba has an undeniable beauty, charm and a rich, mystical history. It has people that are some of the most creative and cultured in the world – and a story that’s just beginning. Journalists, marketers and brands from around the globe will vie to help tell the story and to shape Cuba’s ongoing legacy, but it’s on the Cuban people to define the country’s path. Communicating the right messages will be essential – ones that bring travelers and consumer spending, new business and capital investment, and jobs. The message has to be true, it must always be real, and it needs to continually shift and evolve.
* CEO of Atlas, an innovative place marketing and consulting firm based in Denver, Colorado.
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