Landing at Havana’s José Martí airport it dawns on me that I may be the only person in Cuba who’s come to do a story about branding. Ever.

And as I follow the flock of package vacationers through the terminal it becomes obvious why: in this sunny time warp of an island, there is no branding. No ads for business-friendly hotels or glitzy casinos. No HSBC-stamped jet bridges or Visa-sponsored airport lounge. You don’t realize how many messages are vying for your attention until the messages stop and you’re left looking at off-white walls and fading airport signage.

We make our way down the escalator to customs and I start to wonder if I should just follow my fellow Canadians to some sandy all-inclusive; throw in the proverbial towel and fold out the beach towel. And that’s when I see it: the only ad in the airport. It’s a picture of a dark, handsome bottle with a red circle and two words written on it in white: “Havana Club.” The same brand that invited me to Havana and, as it turns out, pretty much the only brand in town.

Brand history, brand culture

The words “Havana Club” mean something different depending on where you are in the world. They were first stamped on a bottle of rum in 1878 by a 31-year-old Spanish immigrant named José Arechabala. After the 1959 revolution, Arechebala’s distillery was seized and nationalized by Fidel Castro’s new government. The family was exiled to Spain and eventually settled in the United States.

In 1994, the Cuban government relaunched the brand under a joint venture with French spirit conglomerate Pernod Ricard (there are stories of Castro keeping Pernod’s general manager waiting in his office into the wee hours of the morning). Shortly after, rival rum distiller Bacardi partnered with the Arechabala family and began distributing its own “Havana Club” label.

In this sunny time warp of an island, there is no branding. No ads for business-friendly hotels or glitzy casinos. No HSBC-stamped jet bridges or Visa-sponsored airport lounge.

For more than a decade the two companies have been entangled in a protracted trademark dispute, complicated by international law and the United States embargo against Cuban products. As it stands, both brands sell rum under the “Havana Club” name: Bacardi in the U.S. and Pernod everywhere else.

Since reviving the brand in 1994, the Franco-Cuban company has positioned itself as “Cuba’s cultural ambassador,” says François Renié, Havana Club’s global communications director and my tour guide for the trip. In 2007 Renié launched Havana Cultura, a multimedia website dedicated to showcasing contemporary Cuban culture. Eventually the site was spun out into a series of international events, a trilogy of jazz-fusion recordings produced by British DJ Gilles Peterson, and a grants program that supports young artists around the capital.

Havana Club’s latest project – and the reason they flew me down here – is a film called Seven Days in Havana. It consists of seven interwoven shorts directed by a gaggle of Spanish-speaking filmmakers, including Puerto Rican movie star Benicio Del Toro in his directorial debut. The film was written by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura and, given Havana Club’s hands-on role in its development, represents a unique experiment in branded entertainment.

From Berlin to Havana

I didn’t expect to spend my first night in Havana touring the city with a movie star. I’m seated at the bar at El Floridita, the birthplace of the frozen daiquiri and one of Ernest Hemingway’s many “favourite haunts” (a bronze statue of the writer leans an elbow on one end of the bar). On the stool next to me is Daniel Brühl, a German-Spanish actor who starred in the nostalgic Cold War comedy Good Bye Lenin! and played a Nazi sniper in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Brühl, diminutive and charming, starts work on Seven Days in Havana tomorrow and is spending the evening hitting up several of Havana’s iconic spots for a German GQ photo shoot. I’ve been invited to tag along.

Actors Daniel Bruhl and Melvis Santa with director Julio Medem

Between sips of his daiquiri, Brühl tells me how excited he is to work in Cuba, having made his name in a film about communism but being too young to have experienced the Berlin Wall himself. He describes the bar, with its uniformed barmen and colonial air, as a “time warp” and later tells me that he “didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the country now because it might change very soon.” This desire to bear witness to the city before it becomes unrecognizable seems to be shared by tourists and locals alike. With a fading Fidel, an influx of foreign money and a growing tolerance for private enterprise (plus a relatively dovish president in the White House) the smell of spring is in the air. There’s also the cruel notion that the crumbling art deco mansions and 60-year-old American cars that lend the city its colour can’t evade the scrap yard forever.

Old Havana, new Havana

The next morning I stop by the film set at the Riviera Hotel, a colourful mid-century modern gem built by American mobster Meyer Lansky. It’s the production’s final week and they’re shooting the first scene of “The Temptation,” Spanish director Julio Médem’s contribution to Seven Days in Havana. The film involves a love triangle between a Cuban singer (played by local musician Melvis Santa), her Cuban boyfriend, and a Spanish record producer (played by Spanish-born Brühl) who offers her a shot at a European singing career. The scene begins with Santa and Brühl’s characters meeting at the hotel bar. After some whispered flirting he kisses her and hands her a plane ticket along with the key to his room. Between takes, Brühl admits that “it’s not so bad kissing those lips over and over,” but says the characters’ relationship “doesn’t go any farther,” suggesting Santa’s character ultimately decides to stay put.

Like previous Havana Cultura projects, the film’s creators seem to be struggling with an impulse to reinforce our romantic, but not entirely healthy, notions of Havana, and a desire to refresh the city’s brand. Based on a classic Cuban novel, “The Temptation” is a “metaphor for the Cuban dilemma,” according to Médem. “Does she stay here where she is from, or does she pursue money and success elsewhere?” Médem says that the fact that this century-old story works in a contemporary context demonstrates that the city’s present is inextricably linked to its past. Fabien Pisani, one of Seven Days in Havana’s Cuban producers, describes the film as a “love letter to Cuba” and a chance to “make a film about Havana in Havana instead of Miami or Santa Cruz.” But while self-consciously avoiding Havana’s cultural and physical clichés (Buena Vista Social Club, vintage cars), the filmmakers are also trying to “capture the city before it goes away, before buildings change or crumble,” says Pisani.

In this sense, Havana Club may be an even better ambassador than it realizes. By shining a spotlight on the present, both city and brand can’t help illuminate its own complicated past.

Actor/director Benicio Del Toro (centre) near the Malecón

A branded film

Havana Club was involved with Seven Days in Havana from the beginning, Renié tells me in the Riviera lobby after we’ve watched the actors shoot the kissing scene at least a dozen times (I may never again be able to watch a Spanish film without imagining a curly-haired director yelling the words “actiones” and “corta” between scenes). The company commissioned Padura to write the script and leveraged its Havana Cultura relationships to get the city’s young talent on board. “What’s great about Cuba is we have access to any artist we want,” Renié says. “Everyone is a free agent.

While a bottle of aged Havana Club rum may show up in a scene or two, Renié tells me that the brand’s involvement with the film isn’t about product placement. Like other Havana Cultura projects, it’s about supporting Havana’s young artists and reinforcing the brand’s status as the city’s unofficial cultural curator. “We’re hoping the movie will make people fall in love with the city,” Renié says, “and we are the city’s ambassadors.”

The film’s creators seem to be struggling with an impulse to reinforce our romantic, but not entirely healthy, notions of Havana, and a desire to refresh the city’s brand.

Branded films have been made before. Douglas Scott, president of branded entertainment agency OgilvyEntertainment, points to Gatorade’s 2007 teen soccer drama Gracie. The film pretty much broke even, Scott says, though it was criticized by one reviewer as playing out “like an extended television commercial…given the very suspicious prominence of Gatorade bottles throughout.” Scott also points to Eurostar’s Somers Town as an example of a successful branded film because the train company was incorporated into the film in a way that felt organic to the story. But Havana Club’s project may be unique in its emphasis on the brand’s values, rather than its rum. “What they’re doing is really the holy grail,” Scott says. “It’s not about the product or even the brand, but about what the brand stands for.”

In a press package sent out before the trip, the film’s producers state that “Usually, we wouldn’t have thought about such a partnership. Brand [sic] and independent movie producers’ universes don’t meet that often.” But when I ask the film’s Cuban producer, Spanish director and German star how they feel about working on a “branded film,” they all seem perplexed by the question. “For me Havana Club is an investor,” says Pisani. “It’s very difficult to raise money for a film in Cuba.” Médem describes Havana Club’s involvement as a “natural collaboration,” saying that he had “no obligation to put a bottle in the film” and “no problem with the brand’s involvement.” As for Brühl, he says he thinks it’s a “great thing” if a brand wants to support local films. Besides, he adds with a smile, “they put a bottle of rum in my room.”

I’ve come here to do a story about branded entertainment but it becomes apparent that these three men don’t see Seven Days in Havana as branded entertainment at all. That’s because the film couldn’t credibly be made without having the rum brand on board. Havana Cultura has been so successful that brand Havana and brand Havana Club and have effectively become inseparable. This sort of “branded curation,” where a company makes itself indispensable to an existing culture or community, is what good advertising is all about, says Gunther Sonnenfeld, an expert in branded storytelling. “It’s not about shoehorning a brand into a story, but using story to develop a brand, Sonnenfeld says. “It’s about putting the narrative before the brand and seeing what comes out of that.” In Havana Club’s case, what has come out of Havana Cultura is a situation where the brand is shaping the city’s story as much as the other way around. The question is whether this case represents a uniquely Cuban throwback to a less competitive time, or a glimpse into the future of branding.

The bar at El Floridita

The only brand in town

On my last night in Havana I meet Renié for dinner at a foreign-run restaurant overlooking the Malecón, the seaside esplanade that locals call their “outdoor sofa.” Internationally, Havana Club is aimed at 25- to 35-year-old “cultural mavens,” he tells me between bites of lemon chicken. These are “young people who like to have fun but aren’t just looking to get drunk,” he says, alluding to archrival Bacardi’s customers. In Renié’s view, the two schools of rum drinkers can be distinguished by their musical tastes as well. In Europe, a “Havana Club bar” will tend to play jazz, soul, reggae or hip-hop while a “Bacardi bar” would favour lounge or house music, according to Renié. That’s why Bacardi’s main competitors are vodka brands such as Absolut (another Pernod Ricard property) while Havana Club “competes with beer” for the attention of more refined bar-goers.

But that’s everywhere else. In Havana, it’s hard to see how any brand can compete with Havana Club, which appears to anchor every mojito I drink during my five days in the city (and that’s quite a few). When we leave the restaurant Renié hands a tip to a parking attendant whom I notice is sporting a red Havana Club vest. I point it out to Renié who proudly states that the uniforms “may be the only advertisements in the city.” Except for the airport, of course. As I head to my gate the next morning I spot another Havana Club banner hanging from the rafters and decide to snap a photo. Then, out of nowhere, two official-looking men in suits approach me and point to the camera. I show them the picture, and after a moment, they wave me off with a smile.