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Corporate branding, brand new revolution and back to the essentials
By Rafael López-Ramos
Félix Beltrán’s graphic design work is a perfect example of the critical role played by communication media in
the build up of the Cuban revolution. First, the American media (the New York Times newspaper and the CBS TV
channel) allowed extensive audiences to get to know a young bearded character, which back then sounded like a
modern, tropical Robin Hood. Then the rebels in the Sierra Maestra range improvised a radio station, and members of the clandestine urban guerrilla in Havana conceived the zero 3 C advertising campaign –aimed at boycotting Batista’s regime, as the 3 Cs stand for Cine (movies), Cabaret and Compras (shopping). After the victory of 1959, the new regime established a propaganda machinery, initially integrated by 2 TV channels and numerous radio stations that used to chained broadcast every speech of El Comandante, plus several newspapers and magazines, employing a true army of journalists, photographers and designers, which allowed a greater development of these media arts, including documentary film. Such movement assisted redefining the image of Cuba, on its withdrawal from capitalism, by resorting to the tools and expertise left behind by half a century of very close relationship with the United States of America. Applying a similar procedure to that of a vaccine, they got away from certain type of Modernity while using its own epistemological tools. Such a knowledge reservoir, added to material and technological limitations, gave birth to a specific graphic style characterized by the use of edgy high contrasting
forms and a limited number of colors, applied in solid fields as allowed by the silk-screen printing technique they
had at hand back then, though totally in tune with the graphic vanguards of the moment.
Corporate branding is the use of a company's name as a product brand name, in the aim to leverage corporate brand equity and facilitate product brand recognition. During the late 60s and early 70s Beltrán was involved in the redefinition of the Cuban nation image through government issued posters, which tended to replace the touristic paradisiacal image (projected by the Cuban graphic style during the first half of the century) by that one of a revolutionary little island plunging into the realm of Utopia. Other of his duties was a sort of rebranding of companies that were nationalized and “consolidated” under a number of state organizations that centralized each trade and industry of the national economy. A process to some extent paradoxical, as those only needed to be reimaged for social and political reasons, not having a great need to compete anymore for the favor of customers,
who rather would be struggling to find and obtain the needed products and services -usually rationed- after waiting in long lines.
However, during his revolutionary period, Beltrán also did some works for international companies that commissioned him to create their brands, as the world stature designer he already was. The small but significant sample of those works we are presenting in this exhibition, possess a striking consistency and character, whether they were done for the Cuban government or for international private customers. His numerous brand designs certainly bear his own personal “brand”, greatly marked by the New York School, as a result from having had his professional education on that city at the right time. The New York School placed an emphasis “on the expression of ideas and an open, direct presentation of information. In this highly competitive society, novelty of technique and originality of concept were much prized, and designers sought simultaneously to solve communication problems and satisfy a need for personal expression.”(1)
Given its originality, the New York School gained international prominence on the 1950s, but it owes a big deal to talented designers who emigrated during the 40s bringing the flair of the European avant-gardes soon to be reinvented, American style, in a pragmatic, intuitive, and more informal way to organize space. Regarding those seminal years and the influences received while in the Big Apple, Beltran confessed that the “closest and more direct influences, during my years in New York city, were from several significant creators who were born in Europe, as Alexey Brodovitch, Ivan Chermayeff, Herbert Matter, George Tscherny and Henry Wolf, when I was his disciple and asistant.”(2)
The present exhibition includes 20 brand designs chosen by the artist among the extensive oeuvre he created over fifty plus years. This collection embodies a particular moment of Modernism that made the most of the findings of father of semiotics Charles S. Pierce (1839-1914), who defined the typology of the sign according to the ways in which it refers to its object, as Icon, Index or Symbol. The first and the latter are the most commonly used in brand and logo designing, though they not always can transcends time-space limits to keep their communicational (symbolic or iconic) values effective, since communication is based on cultural and epochal conventions. In one of his articles about branding, Beltrán addresses the issue as “the fallacy of believing that a brand should be permanent, eternal” (3) as its contents often evolve and the brand does not correspond anymore to the realities it embodies. He quotes Paul Rand remarks on his design for IBM, whose letter B inner spaces were conceived as linear and geometric evoking the punched cards computers used in the 50s. This detail, unnoticed to the public,
made him consider it an obsolete part of his famous brand design.
Beyond any considerations on the current effectiveness of some of the brands exhibited here (created between 1956 and the year 2000), they represent a unique opportunity to first hand learn and admire the work of an artist whose name is already inscribed in the history of graphic design. Félix Beltrán’s work represents a poignant expression of the Modernist age within this communicational art-science. His prolific lengthy journey, from his formative New York years through the Cuban revolution and subsequent exile, offer us an important moral about the endurance of talent against the odds of life.
(1) Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design (Third Edition). John Wiley & Sons,
Inc., New York, NY, 1998, P. 337.
(2) Beltrán, Félix. Email interview by the author, August 2009, Miami - Mexico.
(3) Beltrán, Félix. “Acerca de la marca”. Revista Tiempo de Diseño, año 2, número 2,
marzo 2006, México D.F., p. 84.