War over Havana Club rum continues: ‘Don’t tell us we’re not Cuban,’ commercial says

Bacardi has a new weapon in its battle for the bar: heritage.

The spirit-maker has launched a new advertising campaign for its Havana Club rum that leans on nostalgia, roots and pride. Though its rum is no longer distilled in Cuba, Havana Club “will always be a brand” of the Caribbean island, the makers say.

The “Forever Cuban” campaign, created by BBDO New York, consists of a 60-second video produced and directed by Cuban exiles in Miami, in both English and Spanish, and features Cuban-American actor Raúl Esparza, known for his performances in the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” TV series and in the film “Hannibal.”

In the video, Esparza recites the poem “Island Body” by Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, who wrote it exclusively for the campaign. The poem highlights the exile experience with phrases such as “forced to leave home but home never leaves us... Wherever exile takes us, we remain this body made of the red earth of our island... Don’t tell us we’re not Cuban...”

The video closes with these words: “Forced from home. Aged in exile. Forever Cuban.”

For the past two decades, Bacardi has been involved in a legal war with the Cuban government, which claims it holds the global trademark to the brand. Bacardi has vigorously disputed that claim.

“The purpose of the campaign is to proclaim the Havana Club rum heritage,” said Roberto Ramírez, marketing director of Bacardí for North America. “We are seeking to defend the authenticity of our rum as being a brand of Cuban origin that was exiled.”

And at the same time, Ramírez said, the company wants to send a “powerful message” to all exiles: “That they are still part of the homeland and there is nothing and no one who can take away that identity.”

The campaign was unveiled at the end of December “in anticipation of the 59th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.”

Fidel Castro seized control of the island on Jan. 1, 1959. In 1960, the government seized many private companies, including the Havana Club distillery owned by the Arechabala family. Some family members were imprisoned and ultimately forced into exile.

However, they managed to flee with a family secret: the original Havana Club recipe.

“My dad was the one who was in Havana at that time and he himself took the recipe out of the island. I do not know how he did it, but knowing him, he probably memorized it and then wrote it down when he got the chance,” said Paola Consuegra, a second generation member of the Arechabala family.

The Arechabalas sought refuge in the United States, where the recipe was personally transcribed by Ramón Arechabala and given to Bacardí as part of an agreement between both families.

“In the 90s, my dad came and talked to the Bacardí company because he always tried and wanted to re-launch the name of the company and our family,” said Consuegra.

“My father's family was exiled by the Cuban regime and its factories seized without notice or compensation,” she said. “After the expulsion from his country, my family took our recipe for rum — the one that has been in our family for almost 85 years (...) and through our agreement with Bacardí, we have found a way to maintain our legacy, by keeping our recipe and our brand alive.”

Following the revolution, the Cuban government resumed Havana Club production and registered the trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1976, after the Arechabalas’ trademark lapsed.

Bacardí — whose Cuba facilities were expropriated by the Castro government — claims to be the legitimate heir of the brand because it bought the rights in an agreement with the Arechabalas in 1994.

Cuba Ron, Cuba’s rum company, and Pernod Ricard, a French company that distributes the brand, contend the “authentic” Havana Club rum is made in Cuba. Bacardi’s Havana Club rums are produced in Puerto Rico.

Ramírez said the brand performed well in 2017 but he declined to provide figures.

“The results exceeded our expectations and we have a very positive growth trend,” he said.

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