Branding the Maracucho Dream

Amid the worst recession in the country's history, niche players who grasp the power of branding are still managing to thrive in Maracaibo.

On a recent visit to Maracaibo, I spotted a super trendy coffee shop and thought I’d stop a while, order an espresso and read the news on my phone. Imagine my surprise when a host by the door explained to me the waiting time for a table would be about an hour. The place was packed!

It’s no surprise: the food and drink sector is everyone’s go-to investment. Maracaibo is popping out new Starbucks-like coffee houses faster than the Dolar Today ticker rises; and they’re all packed.

I spoke with Cynthia, a maracucha and one of the café’s founders. When I asked what prompted her to get into this business, “people want and need distractions from the colas and the countless problems we face today.”

But it’s not as simple as meeting the need for distraction. There has to be more to Cynthia’s success if she gets people to gladly wait in a cola. Unless you’re The Cheesecake Factory or the Fifth Avenue Apple Store on new iPhone Day, you don’t often witness this phenomenon.

Branding is baked into her café’s DNA. It has a catchy name and a friendly logo embedded onto almost everything, from the front door to the napkin holders to the to-go coffee cups.

Rather than just pouring coffee and making sandwiches, it sets out to communicate a concept, an identity; so they decided to invest in a branding concept from the get-go.

She wasn’t familiar with the existence of local branding agencies, but it wasn’t hard to understand the value of branding for her business.

“You have to play to win in this economy, and I felt like a branding concept backing my project diminished my risk significantly.”

When I spoke to the guys at BRND Consulting, the branding agency responsible for Cynthia’s café, they joked “what economic crisis?” They have plenty more projects in their pipeline.

“What coffee shop ideas do you have for me?” or “I want to launch a burger joint” are the most frequent ideas prospects walk into these agencies like BRND Consulting with.

A start-up, BRND Consulting is based out of a regular apartment building in Maracaibo. The premises, full of twenty-somethings on iMacs and with a PlayStation set up in the break room, had a knowing, Silicon Valley feel to it.

For a second there I forgot I was in my crisis-laden hometown.

I was shocked to find professionals in their twenties who are not hell-bent on emigrating. I was even more surprised to find this pack of young copywriters, designers and creative directors are not necessarily struggling to make a decent living on the minimum wage. Instead, they’ve created a little bubble of a market niche for themselves, they are thriving there.

Inside the bubble, local entrepreneurs are propelling what locals perceive as a wave of new commercial establishments in the vein of Cynthia’s café.

For entrepreneurs like Cynthia, branding has been key to the café’s success.

“Venezuelans are thirsty for brands that represent them,” she told me. “People go to the US and pay $6 for a Starbucks coffee, and they’re really paying to take a picture of the cup rather than the coffee.”

Some seasoned businessmen would probably argue that investing in branding is a waste of money. Who needs to lure consumers into your café through a brand if the economy does not allow them to afford much of anything outside of food and medicine anyway?

In fact, it has paid off in multiple ways. Beyond having a full house most the time, people buying merch with the café’s logo and social networks bursting with activity; branding helps keep employees motivated.

With a paycheck in bolivares, employee morale is negative by default, but the brand has assisted in raising employees’ spirit and driving them to provide good service.

“We’ve sold the brand in a way that employees feel it’s cool to work here. I was surprised to find one of our waiters wore the cap with our logo outside of work. We’ve really created a sense of belonging.”

Employee morale is just one of the challenges. Sourcing the ingredients to run a coffee shop is a daunting task in a shortage-struck economy: “we bake our bread in-house and finding wheat flour is harder than finding cement out there. You have to be well connected or do some form of bachaqueo to be able to satisfy customers. In some cases the customer will say they’re willing to pay more to get the quality they’ve come to expect.”

When I asked if she believed she was seeing opportunity in crisis, she said, “People need an escape. Plus, the entertainment landscape has changed. Going out at night has become so dangerous; people are opting for hanging out at a café and getting together at someone’s apartment for the night. So that’s helped business.”

Getting customers to hang out at your shop is what these branding agencies claim to achieve. As I continued my conversation with the guys at BRND Consulting, they mentioned, “the goal was not to sell sandwiches or coffee. It was to sell the idea of having a good time” in reference to Cynthia’s café.

Based on that premise, they helped create an export-quality, franchise-ready business.

It is unusual to sense prosperity and growth in today’s Venezuela. Even more unusual is a brand competing to earn you as a customer in an economy where you take what you can find.

A few months after the opening of Cynthia’s first cafe, I stumbled upon an empty establishment in another area of the city with the same friendly logo and a caption that read “Proximamente.” For a second, I again forgot I was in my native, crisis-laden Venezuelan hometown.

Carlos Koteich

Master in International Business at Hult International Business School and B.S. in Computer Science at Universidad Rafael Belloso Chacin. Consulted for Fortune 1000 company in Boston in the areas of Market Intelligence and Product Management. Relocating from Maracaibo to California to expand Venezuelan-based family business. Enthusiast for Mobile Social Networks, Marketing and Advertising. Constantly writing music and recording when I have the time. Always trying to come up with the next big app.