Cafe Cuba: The dark side of coffee?

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | April 29, 2014
Parle Agro's first mass media campaign for Cafe Cuba, a carbonated coffee beverage, positions it as a 'revolutionary' drink for today's young 'comrades'. What are we rebelling against, though? Colas, we gather.

Of all the words that come to mind when one says 'coffee'... 'dangerous', 'underworld' and 'rebellion' aren't typically the first few. But then again, there's nothing typical about a dark brown, aerated, coffee-flavoured beverage.

Screenshot of the TVC

A digital video launched during the test phase of the product last June

A screenshot of the digital campaign, that talks about the coffee revolution, in the context of cola, something the brand claims we've been consuming as 'puppets'

Close up shot of the drinker's eye to highlight the physiological effect of Cafe Cuba. We've seen this kind of camera work in the film Requiem for a Dream, a film about drug abuse

The online experience ends with these options, very much 'in character'

Sajan Raj Kurup

Nadia Chauhan

In its first mass media ad campaign, Cafe Cuba has been positioned as "a revolutionary new drink for the young, cool and hip," as Sajan Raj Kurup, founder and creative chairman, Creativeland Asia, the agency behind this campaign, puts it. Given its combination of coffee and fizz, it could easily qualify as a "rebel beverage" in today's market, he insists.

When asked about the international look and feel of the ad, he says, "Well, 60 per cent of the cast is of Indian origin. They have been styled to look edgy and 'not mainstream'. People like these exist in small pockets across the urban landscape of India, in Delhi, Hauz Khas Village, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kochi, Kolkata and the North East. We have been true to this insignificant and non-mainstream India."

The film has been shot in the back alleys of South Africa. The soundtrack that plays through the film is Afrika Shox by Leftfield.

In the film, we see a truck with the word 'Cola' written on it. The 'revolutionaries' transform it into a Cafe Cuba truck. They do the same with a neon sign atop a building. What is the objective of such not-so-subliminal messaging? To say 'Cafe Cuba is better than colas' or to ensure people realise that it is, in fact, fizzy coffee, lest they think otherwise? Answers Kurup, "While tactically it is more of the latter, it is open to interpretation."

Nadia Chauhan, joint MD and chief marketing officer, Parle Agro, explains, "Cola is pop culture today and has been for a long while. For anything to be positioned as an alternative to cola would require more than just cosmetically refreshing the category codes. It would need to be a revolution."

And revolutions, she adds, can't be overt; "they are underground, they grow by word of mouth in nameless alleys and unlisted parties."

The film appears to target those who are inherently rebellious. Chauhan talks about the TG, "The core TG comprises youngsters who are willing to try something new, people who are tired of the conventional. You can call them rebels if you insist. Over the last year, we've realised that people are willing to look beyond the colas."

Toxicology Report

The film emphasises one's bodily reaction to a single sip of Café Cuba, through close up shots of the drinker's dilating pupils and a magnified view of coffee droplets, presumably the ones that have just been consumed. These shots are accompanied by sounds of ingestion-related pleasure. We've seen this kind of camerawork in Darren Aronofsky's movie Requiem for a Dream (2000), which is about drug abuse.

Why was it so important to liken caffeine to a 'substance'? Answers Parle Agro's Chauhan, "It was important to show people that they are going to enjoy the experience and effect of the product. And it was equally importantly to show it in a way that didn't involve category codes like ice cubes and waterfalls."

Creativeland Asia's Kurup is just glad we noticed. "If 'forbidden' and 'wicked' are coming through, it means we (his team at the agency) have done a great job," he smiles.

Do his peers appreciate the effort? "It just tells people that this drink will give you some sort of high," reacts Anuraag Khandelwal, ECD and creative head, Soho Square Mumbai.

"I like the feel of the ad. It's obviously talking to a very niche TG. Whether the positioning of its caffeine content as a 'drug' will work or not is something only time will tell," Khandelwal adds.

To Sailesh Wadhwa, head, strategic planning services, Lowe & Partners, Malaysia, the scenes that show the drinker's physiological reaction to a sip are "a dramatisation of the best possible kick you can expect from a ready to drink (RTD) coffee beverage," though a kick is not something one readily associates with coffee.

To Wadhwa, the film gives "irreverence" a meaningful dimension, something "colas could not do for the youth" back in the day. He thinks the 'start-up garage, made-in-your-backyard sentiment meets hacker attitude' will connect well with today's youth.

While he feels the brand name gives it the license to "go a little Hollywoodish," Wadhwa muses about the creative execution, "It could have been done in Gangs of Wasseypur style too."

Digital Identity

The campaign has a strong digital presence. If you as much as mention Cafe Cuba on Twitter, you get a response from @TheCubaGuy. The bio reads: The official handle of Cuba Underground - the first comrades of the Coffee Revolution. And the person that operates this handle always talks 'in character'. Sample this tweet: "Magnifico photo, senorita. It may be the small can, but once you #TastedCuba, it can spark the big revolution!"

The brand has created a website,, that has been designed to resemble MS-DOS, an operating system that was widely used during the 1980s and 1990s. In DOS style, the site welcomes surfers with the words: Hola Comrade. We have been waiting for you. There is a revolution brewing mi amigo. And we are here to tell you all about it.

Does the online campaign cut it? Prabhat Bhatnagar, founder and creative director, Digivaasi, a Delhi-based digital agency, who feels it is a user-friendly site, says, "People like newer insights stemming out of the things they have already seen or experienced. I'm not quite sure the younger audiences will relate to the MS-DOS angle."

However, Bhatnagar, who is 1977 born, quite likes the brand's DOS-like page and the ones that ensue. "I liked the storytelling part - about the birth of coffee and how they wanted to break away from the cliché of colas," he says.

The site doesn't require the surfer to do more than click a few keys at irregular intervals. Does it fall short on the engagement quotient? "It's not interactive, admits Bhatnagar, "but it is involving. They have kept it simple."

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