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Celia Cruz and the Art of Rebranding

In 1987, I was at the Jersey shore with friends and obsessively listening to the album Cuba y Puerto Rico son by Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. My friend Mario asked me, “So she’s like the Latin Madonna?” I had no response—I couldn’t think of two more different people than Celia and Madonna. But years later, I see something in common with them besides being singers. Madonna has consistently been hailed as a marketing master. Her ability to reinvent herself and absorb new musical trends keep her relevant in a Lady Gaga world.

Celia Cruz has never been called a marketing master—but she was. In her own way, she managed to rebrand herself effectively by following certain core principles. Before we get into that, let’s look at her brand’s liftoff.

Branding Brief
Celia built her brand in Cuba by scoring hits with the Sonora Matancera in the 1950s. She was a national star with some international recognition, mostly in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Celia left Cuba in 1960 and recorded with and without the Sonora in Mexico. Later in the decade she teamed up with Tito Puente. It seemed like the right move. Her compatriot La Lupe had teamed with Tito Puente on the same record label and notched a series of hits. However, despite being good, the albums—including my favorite, Cuba y Puerto Rico son—sold poorly. By the early 1970s, she was in danger of becoming a nostalgia act.

Then Celia rebranded. Here’s what she did.

Brand alignment. First, she appeared in a Latin opera called Hommy, produced by star bandleader Larry Harlow. This got her in front of the young salseros who were fans of Harlow and the other stars featured in the opera. She followed this up by signing with Fania Records, the hottest salsa label around. Celia was paired with megaproducer Johnny Pacheco, who had his own major brand equity with salseros, and produced the hit 1974 album Celia y Johnny. That same year, she traveled to Zaire to perform with the Fania All Stars in a concert before the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman championship bout.  Suddenly her brand was tied with that of Muhammad Ali’s, however indirectly, and a whole new audience of Africans became fans of the newly-crowned Queen of Salsa.

Customer relationship management. Celia’s fan base started in Cuba and followed her into exile. Celia never lost sight of her brand identity as a Cuban singer, so her albums always featured songs referencing Cuba or covers of famous songs by Cuban composers. Examples include “Canto a La Habana,” “Si acaso no regreso,” “Ochun con Changó,” “Vieja luna” and many others. This retained her original customer base—good, smart CRM.

Expansion. Celia made a point of selecting songs like “Toro mata”, a Peruvian folk song, the Brazilian song “Usted abusó” and other tunes from Latin countries beyond Cuba. These picks gave her an entry point with new markets who started with the song they recognized and then later bought into the rest of her brand. Heavy touring in these countries further expanded her brand into Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Panama.

Strategic refreshes. Celia worked with a variety of producers to keep her sound fresh but wisely avoided trends like salsa romántica that were a poor fit for her brand. She also sang duos with stars from other countries, like Vicente Fernandez and Caetano Veloso, and mentored young salsa diva India. This ensured relevance with younger audiences—the  result was a steady stream of hits well into her 70s.

Consistent brand identity. Fans could count on Celia for fresh, fun songs, not odd artsy experiments. She knew her base of working class Hispanics and Latin Americans wanted escape through dancing, and she delivered: “La vida es un carnival” is a good late-career example.

She also kept her appeal to women strong by rebuking machismo with songs like “Que le den candela.” Beyond music, her brand identifiers included wild stage outfits, wigs and her catchphrase, ¡Azúcar!

Strict quality control. Celia didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs. She didn’t miss shows, either. As such, her target market (the audiences) and her distributors (concert promoters) valued her consistent quality. In contrast, her rivals and contemporaries did abuse drugs and miss shows, destroying not only their brands but themselves.

Tireless crossmedia promotion. Celia toured constantly, marketing herself on the front lines through concerts all over the world. She supplemented this by appearing in movies and soap operas. Celia was friendly and open with press of all kinds—an anti-diva who gave funny, charming interviews. Because of this, aside from some minor missteps in the 1990s, she consistently garnered great press. Her ability to adapt suggests that if she were still alive, there’s no doubt that she’d have a formidable Facebook page and thousands of Twitter followers.

The Takeaway
While none of this suggests Celia was cracking open marketing books or taking classes at Wharton between tours, it does demonstrate a profound marketing intuition on her part. Celia was far from the only music star to leave Cuba after 1959. But none of them had anywhere near her success.

What made the difference? It wasn’t mere talent or hard work: she was brilliant in the 1960s and worked hard with little success to show for it.

Ultimately, her astute rebranding maximized the impact of her talent and hard work, transforming Celia from a regional star to a worldwide Latin music icon.

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