I have just returned from the celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Havana Club International. Standing in a huge hall with more than 1,000 people – mostly employees but also people associated with the company and the eponymous Cuban rum brand – it became obvious what a force for good an alcoholic drinks brand can be.
Obviously, Cuba is an impoverished country. The combination of the US blockade and the withdrawal of economic support when the Soviet block collapsed, have left the country isolated. The upshot is that, while the population has free health care and other benefits, their wages are low and there isn’t much in the shops to choose from.
So when a company such as Pernod Ricard comes in, forms a joint venture with local state-owned Cuba Ron to produce, market and sell Havana Club rum, and that investment involves building a distillery and warehousing, you can imagine the goodwill that engenders. Jobs, wages and a window to the world.
Back in that hall those 1,000-plus people were treated to a sit-down meal, free drink and were entertained by some of Cuba’s top pop acts. Needless to say, they loved it and some went wild.
Watching Pernod CEO Pierre Pringuet bopping away on the stage along with Havana Club & Cuba Ron president, Juan González, and Havana Club managing director Jérôme Cottin-Bizonne, was faintly amusing having seen a far more sombre, businesslike Pringuet at many analyst/journalist briefings.
But it does make you think of the relationship the likes of Guinness has with the Irish, Carlsberg with the Danes and Heineken with the Dutch. These companies represent more than just a drinks brand to their populations. Guinness is imbued in Irish society, culture and life. It is a symbol of the country. Carlsberg has a museum in Copenhagen and the company is overseen by a charitable foundation. It is Denmark – along with the Little Mermaid and Tivoli. Similarly, Heineken is more than just a brewer in the Netherlands. You could be cynical about this seeming altruism and yes, of course, they sponsor the arts, sport whatever to engender goodwill so consumers choose that brand over something else.
Nevertheless, standing in that huge hall with all these Cubans eating, drinking and at times shouting and screaming, you can almost taste the goodwill and passion emanating from them.
What better way to counter the anti-alcohol lobby than by being a massive force for good by making your company, brand, seemingly indispensable to that country’s life and society.