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The Cuba Quandary

Published on March 24, 2016, at 8:30 p.m.
by Drew Pendleton.

As the global marketplace continues to grow, new opportunities arise everywhere, every day. Whether through natural means or a single thought brought to life by a business or brand, a new opportunity to expand and develop can be an extremely beneficial, if also potentially difficult, challenge.

Now, the United States and the mega-brands it houses face a new, untested marketplace: Cuba.

With diplomatic relations freshly restored with the Caribbean island nation after nearly 55 years of isolation, it’s easy to predict that major American brands, such as McDonald’s and Walmart, may dip their collective toes into Cuba in the near future once economic policies allow them the opportunity.

Already, 10 American airlines have applied for flights to the island, while in the PR world, Weber Shandwick has become one of the first American PR firms to receive permission to develop a future office in the Cuban capital of Havana. However, from a PR standpoint, the question remains: Even if American brands are ready to expand into Cuba, is Cuba — as a culture and as a country — ready for them?

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Cuba is something of an unpredictable and mysterious country through the lens of the American public. Despite its relatively close proximity to South Florida – 90 miles of open ocean separates Havana from Key West – American tourist travel to the country has been restricted since 1963. In contrast to the towering skyscrapers, tangled traffic and serpentine Starbucks lines in major U.S. cities, Havana alone displays a different kind of lifestyle, full of history and a unique artistic vibrancy.

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Some fear U.S. expansion into Cuban culture could be a bad thing, but we won’t know if this is true until it happens. In terms of entering the marketplace from a PR standpoint, practitioners have to tackle Cuba’s struggling internal communication infrastructure. They would need to learn its culture, prove the benefits their company clients can bring to the Cuban people, and build relationships within communities there.

American brands have expanded abroad, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always worked out. McDonald’s attempted to enter the Barbados market in 1996, but closed after only six months because its menu didn’t fit with what its customer base wanted. Starbucks’ failure in Israel was attributed to “not appreciating coffee culture … and misinterpreting the local customer base’s tastes,” while Walmart’s design and customs failed to fully engage shoppers at its stores in Germany and South Korea. If these big American brands can struggle across the world, it’s possible that the same result may await them in Cuba.

Then again, it’s possible that it won’t. To avoid repeating past mistakes, a chunk of the responsibility falls to PR practitioners to stay aware of what an audience needs and wants and adjust strategies and tactics accordingly. For Cuba, it’s no different. While the Havana of the 1950s has garnered comparisons to modern-day Las Vegas, it’s important that brands and companies ensure that they understand the people they’re attempting to reach and that the Cuba of then is not the Cuba of today.

For PR practitioners, it’s a reminder that knowing your audience is paramount. Time will tell, however, if the strategies used as expansion into Cuba begins will go down as a PR success or as a cautionary tale.

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