Cuba's next step on capitalist road: advertising

Sunday - 6/17/2012, 12:03am EDT

Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) - For decades there's been no such thing as a commercial radio or TV spot in Cuba. Ditto for billboards, website banner ads, and newspaper classifieds.

It can be a refreshing change from the global marketing onslaught, but the lack of traditional advertising opportunities creates a problem for the thousands of budding entrepreneurs who have embraced President Raul Castro's push for limited free-market reform.

It's one thing to open your own business, but how to let potential customers know you exist? True to Cuba's famous knack for making do, the island's small-business owners have turned to low-cost, unconventional advertising _ a flurry of guerrilla marketing in a Marxist society whose founder, Fidel Castro, once denounced advertising as "alienating and noxious."

Getting the word out is "a nightmare," said Cedric Fernando, operator of Bollywood, the Island's only Indian restaurant, which opened in December. "We're running a race with one leg."

Fernando, a Londoner of Sri Lankan descent who is married to a Cuban, emblazoned both doors of his 1955 MG roadster convertible with the Bollywood logo, converting it into a rolling conversation-starter. Some people have snapped pictures with cell phones, called and made reservations.

He also recently paid someone $10 a day to slap coupons for two free drinks onto windshields around Havana, taking advantage of Cuba's color-coded license plate system to target a select clientele: Blue-plated tour vans, the black-and-white of diplomatic vehicles, bright orange for the foreign company employees paid in hard currency rather than the anemic Cuban peso. A thousand fliers lured about 50 dining parties to Bollywood in just two weeks.

"We put one on the ambassador of Spain's car a few days back and he turned up," Fernando said.

Cheaply printed fliers are a popular way of getting the word out. So is more permanent swag. Customers of the Enigma beauty salon go home with pens and lighters emblazoned with its logo and phone number.

At La Pachanga, a bustling burger joint, owner Sergio Alba Marin has pioneered the art of bumper-sticker marketing in Cuba, persuading more than 1,500 motorists to plaster his bright yellow decals on their cars for a 25 percent discount.

Probably nobody in Cuba has been more successful than Alba at drawing eyeballs to his brand. Besides the stickers, customers take home tiny, branded straw hats.

"It's the only way I can let people know of our existence, that we are here," Alba said. "One way or another, you have to get word traveling from mouth to mouth."

Alba scored something of a marketing coup last month when more than 30 employees, customers and friends wearing La Pachanga T-shirts marched in Havana's May Day parade carrying a banner supporting the Cuban Revolution.

The state-run media gave it prominent coverage. La Pachanga's logo, address and tagline _ "preferred by the party scene" _ appeared front and center on national television, and the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, or Rebel Youth, ran a six-inch photo the next day. It was an unusual sight for islanders accustomed to the media carrying revolutionary slogans like "fatherland or death."

"There was a lot of publicity from the May 1 thing," Alba acknowledged.

Restaurants, nightclubs and other businesses are also going a little high-tech, spamming cell phones.

"Unlock the iPhone 4, now it can be done! $150" read a recent text message from The Cellphone Clinic, launched in February 2011 by three friends. Javier Ernesto Matos said it does a brisk business unlocking phones purchased elsewhere so they can be used in Cuba.

The Cellphone Clinic does regular mass messagings of 3,000 or more, paying another entrepreneur in Cuba 3 cents per SMS to send them from a computer.

It may be the closest thing Cuba has to a chain, with three outlets that are registered separately but share a business plan and a branding theme: a green, stethoscope-wearing cellphone. That sets the company apart from the hordes of garage-based competitors, according to Matos.

"It's our identity," he said. "There are a lot of people repairing cellphones. But we're not just a workshop, we're The Cellphone Clinic."

People are also turning to the Internet, despite the island's woeful connectivity rates. Some restaurants have Facebook pages. Families who rent rooms beg travelers for write-ups on sites like TripAdvisor. Fernando says Bollywood is getting into Google ads. The Craigslist-inspired is blocked in Cuba but islanders able get around the technological wall are posting and reading a growing number of listings. The site recently started carrying ads for things like restaurants and international calling plans.