Some years ago, on the table at which I was sitting in a Barbados hotel, there was a small brown packet of sugar. In large letters it identified its contents as, ‘A natural cane Demerara sugar from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean’ and then noted, in much smaller type, that it had been packaged by a Florida based company.
At the time I wrote about the absurdity of importing sugar from the Indian Ocean via the US to a country with a cane sugar industry. I contrasted this with what I found in Martinique where the sugar packet on the breakfast table bore the words ‘Mémoire d’une culture. Sucre de canne de la Martinique’, and an image that linked past to present and the island’s culture, through a simple line-drawing of a traditionally dressed worker cutting cane. The packaging also made clear its origin was with a local sugar factory.
Since that time some effort has been made to address the issue of branding by the region’s traditional industries.
For example, I have recently come across in Europe sugar from both Belize and Guyana where the product has been labelled in a manner that promotes the origin of the product.
I have from a restaurant a packet of sugar from Guyana. In bold letters it says ‘Demerara Gold’ above a picture of a cane field. Beneath this are the words ‘Grown in the region which gave the world the unique flavour. Genuine Demerara Cane Sugar’. On the obverse side the language advises users to ‘Experience the superior quality of this distinctive product enjoyed by coffee and tea connoisseurs since the 19th Century’, followed by the words ‘A product of Guyana’ and then, rather oddly, in much smaller letters the email address of Guysuco rather than a link to a promotional website.
More widely, the Caribbean rum industry using its own money and with support from the European Union is now in a further phase of a marketing and communications campaign built around an authentic Caribbean rum marquee that is for product wholly fermented and distilled in the ACP Caribbean.
Despite this there are an increasing number of products appearing internationally which could be produced in the region that appropriate the Caribbean’s name. For instance there is a product on sale in European supermarkets called Jamaican Jerk, which offers seasoning with ‘a Caribbean feel’. Although it is produced in Britain from ingredients from unidentified countries, its packaging implies it is in some way a genuine taste of Jamaica.
Paradoxically this still slow progress is taking place as the Caribbean’s image is once again becoming much more positive. Largely through the efforts of marketing campaigns run by some of the region’s larger tourism industries, a general sense has taken hold internationally that the Caribbean is once again a hugely desirable, aspirational and a safe destination for visitors from North America and Europe.
Unfortunately, and despite this, the region still suffers from an inability to take control of its names and brand and integrate products in a way that promotes individual nations or the region as a whole.
The loss of control over names like Demerara and even Jamaica indicate the need for the Anglophone Caribbean in particular to find new ways to seize control of its own identity and culture, and use local products and services, and even those appropriating its identity, as tools to create a branded national environment as a central element in generating future economic growth.
Today, boosting global success whether it is in investment attraction, tourism or even trade negotiations depends to an extraordinary extent upon perception. When nations, regions and industries are competing they are to a significant extent measured by the way they present themselves and the level of confidence they engender.
This is not to suggest that style should take precedence over substance. Rather it is to note that an element of the region’s future and competitiveness is likely to come from the way in which countries present their uniqueness and location to the world.
That supermarkets in Europe and North America carry jerk seasoning that is promoted as Jamaican yet in many cases has no connection to Jamaica, indicates how much the region has lost, how much it needs to do to take back ownership of the origin of products for which it is known, and the extent to which it needs to protect its geographical indications and intellectual property.
For those who may not know, a geographical indication, known as a GI, is officially defined as a legally enforceable sign used on goods that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that place of origin. Most commonly, a GI consists of the name of the place of origin of the goods and agricultural products typically have qualities that derive from their place of production and are influenced by specific local factors, such as climate and soil.
Regrettably, the Anglophone Caribbean while a signatory to all such international conventions has not until recently taken advantage of GIs. As a consequence, names like Demerara have become over the years a generic international name for a type of sugar; the word Jamaica and Cuba are now used internationally on almost any product to suggest that either it, or its implied origin, has special qualities; and because the word Caribbean is not protected in the national laws of the countries of the region, it cannot be protected as a Geographic Indication.
The consequence is that the region has had to go down the far less effective route of trademarks. For example, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association some years ago adopted a colourful trademarked logo using the word Caribbean, while the West Indies Rum and Sprits Producers’ Association (WIRSPA) have trademarked its rum marque for Authentic Caribbean Rum.
Caribbean Governments, industry and those who own intellectual property ought to be much more aware of the value of national branding. They need also to defend jointly those industries that represent the future and better promote the origin of the region’s unique products if they and the Caribbean are ever to benefit from the enormously valuable and desirable assets that they possess in authenticity, their name and brand.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com