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Champions of Design: Cohiba

The Cuban cigars' folklore links with Fidel Castro have helped to crystallise its highly individual brand image.

The Cohiba cigar was first rolled in Cuba in 1966. The creation of the tobacco blend that would become known as Cohiba is attributed to two different men. Popular myth has it that Fidel Castro learned of this new cigar through one of his security guards.

The cigar gained favour with the Cuban leader, who was frequently photographed with one in his hand.

At one stage, Cohiba cigars were made exclusively for Castro and his comrades at the famous El Laguito factory.

The cigar was named after the Taino Indian word for the tobacco leaves smoked by the island's early inhabitants. While the way it is made remains relatively obscure, it is known that the Cohiba differs from other Cuban cigars in its unique blend of tobacco leaves, chosen from selected fields on the island.

The leaves also undergo a special fermentation process to give them a smoother flavour.

Cohiba's international reputation grew because the country's premier cigar was often presented as a diplomatic gift to foreign dignitaries.

So well-known was Castro's love of the brand that he was supposedly the target of a CIA assassination attempt using an exploding cigar in a box of Cohibas. It is also rumoured that the distinctive black and yellow design was created by Castro himself.

In 1982 Cohiba was launched commercially to the rest of the world, with limited availability, by Habanos, the state-owned tobacco company that produces all Cuban cigars.

As a result of the US economic embargo on Cuban goods, which began in 1962, Cohiba and other cigars made on the island are still illegal in the US.

Nonetheless, the black market for Cuban cigars there, and particularly Cohiba, is still strong. The illicit nature of the brand has also somewhat contributed to its popularity and aura of luxury and extravagance.

In the US, a tobacco company trademarked the name, selling its own Cohiba cigars produced in the Dominican Republic. The US cigar, though, is the same only in name. With the possibility of trade sanctions being lifted in the near future, speculation has already begun over who will have the rights to the Cohiba name in the US.

More recently, sales of Cohiba have soared in China. As the desire for luxury goods increases, along with growing wealth across the country, Cohiba cigars have become as fashionable an accessory as designer handbags.

The brand's success in China has compensated for a fall in sales in Cohiba's main Western European market, where smoking bans have come into effect in many countries.

More than a simple cigar, Cohiba is an emblem of rich elites as much as it is a socialist revolution.


Andy Knowles, chairman, JKR

By Andy Knowles, chairman, JKR

Such an eye-catching, confident little design - monochromatic milling atop a bright yellow ground, an austere logotype relieved only by the humanity of the native squaw. For luxury cigars costing £25 apiece, it appears to say very little - yet what a story it can tell.

It was created in 1966, a year etched on our national consciousness by sporting success, when off the Florida coast an altogether more ideological battle was being fought. Having initially monopolised this special cigar, once Castro had decreed Cohiba should henceforth be available to all, he allegedly designed the packaging himself - and by so doing betrayed the passion of an iconoclast.

By its spare, industrial nature, the design is the antithesis of the over-decorated, quasi-religious regalia of its predecessors. No gold foil, no medals, no sepia images, no Biblical metaphors. It confidently symbolised the values of the new era, the triumph of the socialist movement, the rejection of traditional authorities of church and state. In the process, it rendered capitalist Cuban cigar brands somehow alien.

If the political lesson to be drawn from Cohiba is that even humble packaging can be a catalyst for social change, perhaps the business lesson is that, should you wish to foment a revolution, brave design is your first weapon.


1966: The Cohiba cigar was created.

1972: The Cohiba trademark was registered in Cuba. Later, it was trademarked in 115 other countries, excluding the US.

1982: Cohiba cigars became available outside Cuba for the first time.

1986: Cohiba's biggest fan, Fidel Castro, gave up smoking.

1990: Cohiba manufacturer Habanos' first international retail outlet, La Casa Del Habano, opened in Cancun, Mexico.

2000: Spanish tobacco company Altadis acquired a 50% stake in Habanos. Altadis went on to be bought by Imperial Tobacco in 2008.

2006: The limited-edition Cohiba Behike went on sale, priced £233. It was billed as the most expensive cigar ever made.

2011: Habanos' total sales, including Cohiba, hit £228m.

View more Champions of Design


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