In the world of branding, there is a land where brand mascots live on forever. The really great characters seem timeless, moving from generation to generation, even as the products they represent evolve.
Take Speedy (Alka-Seltzer) and Tony the Tiger (Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes). They were created in the 1950s but today, both have returned to pitch their respective products in new television commercials.
Juan Valdez is another timeless brand mascot from that era. So who is he, and why has he remained in the public eye?
The story begins in 1959, when the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia wanted to capture the spirit of more than 500,000 coffee growers and small Colombian coffee producers who made “100% Colombian coffee.” The Federation created a coffee grower character, Juan Valdez, who was always shown with his mule, Conchita, carrying coffee beans in sacks. Juan Valdez embodied the Colombian coffee grower and literally became the face of Colombian coffee around the world.
Juan Valdez is believable because he is authentic. Such is his mystique, there’s even been a documentary about a fan’s search for him. Over the years, only three individuals have played Juan Valdez. The current Juan Valdez is Carlos Castañeda, who has represented the character since 2006. He was selected from more than 380,000 coffee growers. Carlos says, “While I am not representing Juan Valdez in Colombia and in the world, I try to spend as much time as it is possible with my family. I have a small coffee farm, in the municipality of Andes, Antioquia.” You can get to know Juan (and Carlos) at the Federation’s slick animated website.
At the turn of the century, Colombia was faced with a new challenge, however, as coffee increasingly became a global commodity. While Juan Valdez had served Colombia’s coffee growers well, Colombian coffee was being marketed under countless brand names. Juan still represented the National Federation, but he needed a new life.
So in 2002, the National Federation started Procafecol SA, a company designed to create expansion opportunities for the Juan Valdez brand. One opportunity was to market coffee under the Juan Valdez name. Now Juan sells his own brand of coffee, carrying an illustration of Juan and Conchita, through an online store. Consumers can also buy such brand spin-offs as coffee candies, a coffee brewing kit, a thermos, a keychain, or a toy replica of Conchita the Mule. Coffee-lovers can even sign up for a coffee club and receive discounted shipments as often as weekly if desired.
Another brand marketing idea was to start the Juan Valdez Café, a chain of coffee houses initially located in Colombia. By the end of 2007, there were 100 Juan Valdez Cafés in Colombia, as well as ten in the U.S. and two in Europe.
Before the global recession, Procafecol might have been positioned to mount something of a challenge to Starbucks and other coffee house chains, but after 2008, international expansion of the Juan Valdez Café seemed to founder.
Nevertheless, Juan Valdez was omnipresent in his native nation. After a trip to Colombia, Daniel Gross wrote in Slate in April 2010 that Juan Valdez “is beginning to gain Starbuckian scale, especially in Bogota, home to at least 60 Juan Valdez shops. It's capitalizing both on nationalism and the significant advances of the Colombian economy.” Starbucks, wrote Gross, “hasn't figured this out yet. Starbucks sells Colombian coffee at its stores in the United States and in Peru, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. But it doesn't have any outlets in the land of Juan Valdez.”
Still, Juan has had a rougher time of it elsewhere. While Procafecol says on its website that “we are defining our new strategy of international expansion” with “priority” on the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, Juan Valdez Cafés have been shuttered in New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
In May 2010, Luis Genaro Muñoz head of the Federation, was forced to defend Procafecol’s expansion plans. “The model of the stores in the streets didn’t work in the U.S.,” he said, “and that’s why we closed most of them. But Café de Colombia, Juan Valdez coffee, is in the supermarkets.”
Despite what appears to be a less than successful worldwide expansion of the Juan Valdez Café concept, Juan is managing to stay relevant. Juan, aka Carlos, continues to make appearances, and he is prominent on the Federation’s “coffee social network,” which links to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. And, of course, his eponymous coffee brand is still available on store shelves.
Coffee grower Juan Valdez is one brand mascot who is still keeping up with the times.
Barry Silverstein has been a frequent brandchannel contributor since 2007. He has thirty years of advertising and marketing experience and is currently a freelance writer and marketing consultant. He founded and ran his own direct marketing agency and held executive positions with Epsilon, a leading database marketing firm and Arnold, a major ad agency. Silverstein is the author of three marketing books, including the McGraw-Hill book, The Breakaway Brand, which he co-authored with Arnold CEO Fran Kelly.
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