New Juan Valdez going high-end

Colombia coffee growers put him, mule in Starbucks world

December 01, 2007|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,Los Angeles Times

BOGOTA, Colombia -- The ever-faithful mule is still by his side, the poncho neatly draped across his shoulder, the straw hat perched atop the serene, mustachioed visage.

But this is a new Juan Valdez - younger, more vigorous, more eco-conscious - a Colombian coffee grower for the hyper-caffeinated era of double lattes, triple shots and gourmet blends.

Venerable Juan Valdez, one of the most successful emblems of modern advertising, is getting a makeover. Whereas the old Juan would stroll into mom's kitchen and enjoy a cup of Folgers while gently plugging 100 percent cafe de Colombia, 21st-century Juan has his own line of beans that he brews at trendy coffeehouses.

"Juan Valdez is eternal," declared Gabriel Silva , who heads the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, the trade group that first trotted out the figure almost a half-century ago. "Our idea is to rejuvenate and reinforce the image of Juan Valdez, without losing his authenticity."

It might be Juan's biggest challenge yet: In the balance hangs the future of Colombia's $1.5-billion coffee industry, which provides a livelihood for millions and imparts a measure of social stability in a nation long troubled by civil conflict.

Colombian coffee took a big hit in the late 1990s, when a global glut of the bean depressed prices worldwide. Advertising budgets were slashed. Juan Valdez seemed headed for pop culture relic status.

"They cut advertising to practically zero, and that unfortunately was at the time when interest in gourmet coffee was growing," said Rohit Deshpande , who teaches marketing students at Harvard Business School about Juan Valdez. "Now they're trying to get back into it."

Today, the coffee crisis has ended, and Colombian coffee is selling for more than double its price four years ago. But production is down compared with the early 1990s, and Colombia now ranks as the world's third-largest producer, after Brazil and Vietnam, the latter a relatively recent coffee behemoth. Colombia is now emphasizing niche marketing and quality over quantity.

Colombian growers decided that Juan Valdez could again work his magic, in part because his name recognition remains extraordinary. Two years ago, he made the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame after consumers voting in an industry forum named him their favorite icon, beating out such stalwarts as Mr. Clean, the Jolly Green Giant, the California Raisins and the Kool-Aid Man. And many Colombians profess fierce pride in the figure, although he is the creation of American ad men.

"Juan Valdez represents the high quality of Colombian coffee," said Jairo Garcia, 24, a picker harvesting beans on a finca (farm), amid the green-carpeted, rolling hills of central Colombia's Quindio department. "He is a symbol of what we do."

Today, a slimmer, more youthful man is playing the Valdez role. His outsized signature now adorns fashionable coffee shops in Colombia and as far away as Madrid, Spain, New York and, yes, Seattle. Mimicking Starbucks, the coffeehouses hawk Juan Valdez T-shirts, cups, to-go flasks, caps and more.

And Juan Valdez is no longer just a reassuring face on someone else's coffee. The icon has a line of premium and organic blends, on sale at Wal-Mart and other venues.

"For years, Starbucks was eating the Colombian producers' lunch," said Bruce M. Bagley, a University of Miami professor who is writing a book on Colombian coffee. "Value is added when you sell coffee in a pretty package. There's no value added just by growing the stuff and selling it in bulk bags."

Whether the Juan Valdez revival will ensure long-term prosperity for an industry so subject to price fluctuations remains to be seen.

All Juan Valdez products come under the umbrella of the coffee growers federation, a nonprofit trade group that says the earnings go into improvements for its 500,000-plus members, mostly small farmers. The current Juan Valdez, like his predecessor, is himself from the ranks of Colombian growers.

The Juan Valdez saga began in the late 1950s, with world coffee prices plunging and Colombian producers keen to differentiate their beans in a U.S. market where coffee was mostly a 5-cent cuppa joe, no cachet, no adornment.

Growers approached a legendary New York ad company, Doyle Dane Bernbach, which also created trailblazing little-guy ads for the Volkswagen Beetle ("Think Small") and Avis ("We Try Harder"). The persona of Juan Valdez, a name chosen for its ease of pronunciation among non-Spanish speakers, was born.

The first Juan, who debuted on black-and-white screens in 1960, was Jose Duval, a Cuban-American actor living in New York. He was an immediate hit in a market where few people had given Colombia a second thought. Colombia coffee farmer Carlos Sanchez assumed the role in 1969, reinforcing the initial message of quality and steadfastness.

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