He's given coffee a 30-year boost

SUN JOURNAL

Image: As Juan Valdez, the face of Colombia's main crop, actor Carlos Sanchez is recognized around the world, to the industry's delight.

January 22, 2000|By Kirk Semple | Kirk Semple,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Guess what!

Juan Valdez, the world's most famous coffee grower, the mustachioed, donkey-roping farmer who spreads caffeinated good cheer around the world, loathes his own mustache!

What's next? The Pillsbury Doughboy admits to feeling deeply insecure about his weight? The Energizer Bunny is busted trafficking in amphetamines?

To be fair, Valdez is fictional. It's Carlos Sanchez, the man who has played the poncho-clad Valdez character for 30 years, who confesses to a dislike for his trademark facial hair.

"I detest mustaches! Horrible!" exclaims Sanchez, who was an unknown actor when he won the role as the face of Colombian coffee in 1969 and has since helped to make Juan Valdez one of the most widely known advertising characters in history.

Apart from that simple matter of aesthetics, though, there doesn't seem to be much that separates the man from his myth. Like the character, the 64-year-old Sanchez appears to be a diligent, loyal, unpretentious, good-natured family man. He even spent part of his youth on a coffee farm and knows how to work the soil. The success of the campaign, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, undoubtedly owes much to this vague coincidence.

"Above all, Juan Valdez is a good farmer, hard worker, very honest, a worker reaping the crops of the country," Sanchez said one recent morning while sitting on the front porch of his modest two-bedroom bungalow in Medellin.

Contrast to bad news

He was to leave the next day on a weekend trip to Washington, D.C., one of about a dozen international jaunts he takes every year on behalf of the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers.

"The character has a very, very good image," he said. "When I arrive in the United States, the Americans -- above all, the Colombian-Americans -- receive me with much love and care. They receive me with pride. Juan Valdez is a big contrast to all the bad news about Colombia."

It's no small feat of marketing that the campaign has been able to rise above Colombia's international reputation as a violent, corrupt nation.

"We're definitely trying to keep the campaign separate from the political issues," said Heather Norfleet, an account executive at the New York-based advertising firm DDB, which created the Juan Valdez character in 1959.

"It isn't our place to comment on" the political or economic situation, she said. "When Carlos is engaged as Juan Valdez, he's there to be a spokesperson for coffee growers. He's not there to be a politician."

According to Susan Fournier, an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, the success of the campaign owes a lot to its continuity.

"The fact that Juan's been around for 40 years is remarkable," said Fournier, who teaches a course on brand marketing. The character, she said, was created during an era when several other well-known advertising figures appeared, including Charlie the Tuna and the Jolly Green Giant.

But while many companies have shelved their mascots, Fournier noted, the Juan Valdez campaign "has remained true in its form but with enough innovation and liveliness that we haven't tired of it over the years."

The campaign is unusual, too, in that it isn't promoting a brand but rather an ingredient or, in advertising-speak, a "category" -- coffee made by members of the coffee federation.

Second to portray character

Sanchez, who was born on a coffee farm in the village of Fredonia in Antioquia province, won the role after being spotted by scouts while performing in a Medellin production of a play by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. His audition for the advertising gig was not the most graceful: He ripped the seat of his pants and spilled coffee on himself. Nevertheless, he got the job, replacing the first actor to play the role, which is when he was forced to grow the despised mustache.

The role has taken Sanchez all over the world to film commercials, photograph advertisements, and appear at public events and conventions. When he is in costume, he attracts crowds on the streets of New York and throughout North America, where the campaign has run most heavily.

Even when he's in plain clothes, people approach for autographs. "At airport immigration, for example, they say, `Why are you visiting the United States?' and I tell them I do publicity. The customs official will look up and go, `Ahh! Juan Valdez!' and call his colleagues over and someone will run get a camera and the other customs officials close their lanes and come over. One official once walked me to my taxi."

Protective of image

Sanchez can wander through his own town in relative peace. During a recent hour-long stroll with a reporter around downtown Medellin, only one person displayed any recognition of Sanchez. That's largely because the campaign is designed for the rest of the world, and perhaps because Sanchez looks quintessentially Colombian.

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