Beards, Berets and Bottles: What the Cuban Revolution Can Teach Us About Wine Marketing

The difference between “winemaking” and “wine marketing” amounts to more than handful of letters. One is an ancient artisanal practice to which the other adds its variation on the oldest profession.  Americans have long excelled at both, however, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn more tricks, including those that come from such an unlikely source as the Republic of Cuba. Yes, Cuba – it’s more than just a four-letter word to U.S. foreign trade policy, it’s a treasure trove of brand marketing insight. What could a commie island, a raft ride from Florida, teach a capitalism-loving ’Merica ’bout marketing? Two words, Guerrillero Heroico.

You’re dubious, you ask “What’s that, a species of primate? The Latin American edition of Guitar Hero?” The answer is no further than the nearest 20-something. Your kid perhaps, or more specifically, their t-shirt. The one emblazoned with the charismatic visage of Argentinean-born doctor-turned-Marxist revolutionary-turned-Cuban demigod-turned-fashion statement for entitled Western-raised youth... Drum roll, please (or conga roll, if you prefer). Señoras y señores – Che Guevara!

Che GuevaraYou know the iconic image of Che, it’s the image of Che, rendered from a photograph originally shot by famed photog Alberto “Korda” Diaz and replicated ad absurdum for the past half century in art both noteworthy and worthless like the fake Warhol’s it once inspired. The image is a killer combination of youth, confidence and sexual prowess rolled in an anti-authoritarian flag large enough to swaddle at least three generations of youth culture.

If Korda received a royalty for every shirt, screen-saver, coffee cup and tschotskes that bore his image of Che, he could have handily relieved the national debt of his native Cuba. Instead, his story is one of rabid artistic appropriation and resignation to his creation’s own power. It’s something of a Frankenstein – cropped, rejiggered and able to rally passion in peasant folk.

This “face that launched a thousand t-shirts” was expertly explored in the documentary Chevolution, with the fitting tagline “the man, the myth, the merchandise.” And therein lies a kernel wisdom every wine marketer attempting to reach the coveted 21 to 35 year-old demographic should embrace. You need to project an image of mythic proportions to knock the Belgian ales and trendy “sour beers” from out of these kids’ mitts. You need your own, personal Che.

Cuban Revolution vs. Cool Kids

As a wine marketing professional, your instinct might be to nominate your winemaker for the gig.  Wrong. Your winemaker is Fidel Castro – a dictator with a spectrometer whose power gets them drunker than their wine. In this scenario, Che is your vineyard manager. Think about it: Vineyard managers are literally “in the field,” they’re on the frontlines of viniculture fighting against everything from weather to phylloxera. They are intrinsically romantic figures invested in the land and its ability to sustain the people. Fidel is Apollo, Che is Dionysus. When it comes to pushing bottles, you want Dionysus the wine god on your label. And trust me, people do judge a wine by its label especially since that’s often where the price tag is.

You ever see a college kid wearing a Fidel Castro t-shirt? Castro’s image doesn’t lend itself to the naive idolatry of youth very well. Quite the contrary, in fact – the hat, the beard and the cigar are all prime for parody. In terms of iconography, Castro is the Groucho Marx of geopolitics. Let’s go further – he’s “Castro Marx,” which makes sense on so many conceptual levels it could rate a dissertation on semiotics.

Fortunately, we have Woody Allen’s revolutionary drag in Bananas to stand-in to prove my point. Not to mention its bastard offspring The Dictator, starring Sacha Baron Cohen reversing a comedic conceit first explored in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator while making it less great in the process. Still, the equation –  Military hat + beard = Comedy – holds up. This may be useful for prop comedians but its the hearts and minds one wants to win from the people, not their funny bones (or any bones, really, though they often end up in mass graves when revolutions go awry). The fact is, many winemakers bear more than a passing resemblance to Fidel. You don’t want to see a guy with a beard on your packaging unless you’re buying rolling papers.

If your vineyard manager isn’t an enigmatic, brooding cypher, fire him. Then you can get a new one that is young, fiercely handsome and preferably dead. Death confers a certain spiritual provenance upon their work (or lack of it in this case). If Che were alive his handsome mug wouldn’t be on a t-shirt let alone a bottle of wine. It would be on a brochure for a university lecture series and it wouldn’t be handsome so much as “distinguished.”

You need a guy who would pass what I call the “Shepard Fairey Test.” Fairey is the artist behind the iconic “Obey” campaign featuring Andre the Giant and the classic “Hope” poster for then candidate Barack Obama. Fairey’s forte is boiling an image down into its essential elements, using bold lines and negative space such that it’s ready-made for silkscreening and spray-paint stenciling onto sidewalks. Cheekbones and a strong brow help in this regard. Ditto a beret, which can transform a mass of unkempt curls into a trapezoidal silhouette that suggests revolutionary swagger.

Of course, barring the above, you could also just get a dude from Cuba. Winemaking in the country is overseen by the Ministry of Public Health. This is a good because you stand a chance of scoring a wine professional who might also be a doctor – like Che. There are a couple hitches when it comes to hiring a Cuban male model qua deceased vineyard manager. Cuba has all the romantic Cold War era intrigue of the Eastern Block but with better weather. This includes, unfortunately, the fact that “you can’t get there from here” and its reciprocal –  “you can’t get here from there – unless you’re man is an Olympic caliber long-distance swimmer. The last time Cuba medaled in swimming was when they took the silver and bronze in ’96 – so don’t hold your breath.

There are also cultural issues with which to contend. Everything most Americans know about Cuba they learned from the movies. Bad movies at that. Some might have heard Peter Segal of NPR’sWait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me bemoan the metamorphosis of his Cuban-set historical novel into Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, the Dirty Dancing sequel with 100 percent less Patrick Swayze. Consequently, much of our cultural knowledge starts with it’s chief contribution to American culture –  the mojito –  and whatever else can be gleaned from the menu of a Cuban restaurant (and I defy you to find anything that isn’t loaded with plantains, which are a kind of brutish banana the way that Neanderthals are a kind of human).

If this all seems a little insurmountable, you could always hire an actor to portray your deceased-revolutionary-vineyard manager-wine label model. If your marketing budget can tolerate it, I’d suggest someone like Gael García Bernal, Antonio Banderas or Benicio Del Toro, all of whom have portrayed Che in film, which could add some glitz to the production. On the cheaper side, naturally, there’s Cuba Gooding, Jr. who’s been waiting for someone to show him the money since 1996. For that matter, if, contrary to my advice, you choose to go the Fidel route, I might just know a guy...