Blog: Olly WehringHavana Club injects Cuban culture into Europe

Olly Wehring | 20 July 2007

We're in Paris and cocktails are on the menu. Cuban art and palm trees deck the halls of the Grand Palais and The National Ballet of Cuba are performing Giselle to an audience fanning themselves from the heat.

From here, it becomes evident that Havana Club know how to do things in style. Tapping into the latest consumer trend to experiment with new Mojito and Daiquiri blends has been well assessed.

Havana Club International, a joint venture between the Cuban government and Pernod Ricard, has been somewhat marginalised in the past by Cuba's trade embargo with the US. But with its sights set on the rest of the world, just-drinks asks: “What's next for Havana Club?”

Karine Lienhard, marketing director for Havana Club International sits down opposite me and grins. She has reason to be cheerful, because, well, as she puts it: “I've never worked on a brand such as Havana Club, it does really well in all the markets, extremely well,” and she's right.

Reeling off a list of markets in which the brand has enjoyed success - despite having to effectively leave the US (which accounts for 40% of the world's premium rum sales) out of the equation - is impressive to say the least.

Lienhard points out: “It increased by 18% to 2.6m cases last year. Germany is the first contributor to the growth. The brand has increased a lot in Greece, UK, Spain, Belgium, Czech Republic and extremely well in Chile, Mexico and Canada. There is potential in Russia, China, India due to consumers wanting more premium products.”

Havana Club's communication director Francois Renie adds that he believes the brand's Cuban identity, heritage and culture have been instrumental to the brand's success. Describing how Havana Club has benefited from the trend for real Cuban cocktails as well as more consumers wanting to trade up within the dark rum catagory.

Lienhard agrees: “Rum is a really hot category. Its growth has been accelerating over the last ten years. Within the rum category, we see premium brands growing very very fast, so it's a growth driven by its premium.”

Lienhard is reluctant to talk about the brand's rival Bacardi, passing off the tension between the brands as irrelevant due to the company's concentrating on different segments. “The key point is that Havana Club business is in premium dark rum. Under that segment, we aim to be the leader and it's not the same kind of segment to the one with Bacardi, which is more white rum.”

The ongoing saga over the rights to Havana Club seems to be a touchy subject, with good reason too, the links between Bacardi and the Arechabala family (the original owners of Havana Club) began in 1994 when the two formed an "alliance".

According to Bacardi, three years later it bought the Havana Club mark from the Arechabala family for an undisclosed sum. Bacardi still claims the Arechabalas were the rightful owners of the Havana Club trademark and that the family's assets were seized by the Cuban government after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

Bacardi subsequently announced that it was launching its own Havana Club rum in the US and the competitors have been duking things out in the courts ever since.

Renie backs up the competitive edge that the two brands display for one another, despite having different goals, saying that he sees the fight as being one based more on competing for trendiness in the spirits market. “But sometimes in some markets, we are competing in the same way as vodka, there's a tendency to compete against what's around, fighting on trendiness, more than being a rum.”

When asked about how the embargo situation might change when Fidel Castro passes on, Renie becomes hesitant to respond in full, pushing the speculative question aside and simply stating: “There's a big issue in the States with the trademarks, it's a very long story. It has so many steps, we have to be really precise,” he adds cautiously, “but we can't export Cuban products to the States and - that's it.”

As far as future plans go, the company confirms that its main objective is to reach 5m cases in 2013. The company hopes to acchieve this with its new distillery in San Jose, which has the means to output large quantities made in "the traditional Cuban way".

It's obvious that for Havana Club, success in the European markets has driven the brand forwards, but with more competition in place than ever before, Renie confirms that the company will concentrate its focus on “leadership of the dark, aged rum category,” assuring us that, really, “it's the segment for which we are true specialists.”


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