Juan Valdez: Is it time for Colombia to ditch its national icon?

juan valdez colombia
  • The FNC introduced Juan Valdez in 1959 to promote Colombian coffee abroad
  • The number of US consumers who considered Colombian coffee as “excellent” grew by 300%
  • As the role of women in coffee production grows, some question whether Juan Valdez is still representative

FOR MORE than 60 years, Colombians have grown up with Juan Valdez and his mule as their global ambassadors: two characters sent out to spread the word about the exceptional quality of Colombian coffee.

But when US advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created the characters in 1959, not only Colombia but the coffee industry as a whole were in a distinctly different place to where they find themselves today.

At the time, the country’s coffee association, the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers (FNC) had a clear idea of how it wanted to market Colombian coffee to the world: as an exotic drink with a strong spirit produced by smiling, light-skinned, poncho-wearing campesinos.

Juan Valdez was just that and quickly became a cult figure, appearing in numerous FNC-funded commercials portrayed by Carlos Sanchez, a real coffee farmer from Antioquia.

Just five months after the campaign’s launch, the number of US consumers who said they recognised Colombian coffee as “excellent” increased by 300%; around 60% claimed they would be willing to pay more for Colombian coffee.

However, times have changed. And although Juan Valdez continues to be a beloved figure and a source of palpable national pride, his ability to represent the Colombian coffee industry may have started to wane.

‘Cultural fetishisation’

Recent statistics show that among Colombia’s 540,000 coffee farmers, women are responsible for the vast majority of fieldwork. They also contribute around 70% of the workforce when it comes to sorting and drying the harvested coffee cherries, while playing a critical role in community building.

However, gender inequality continues to be widespread, with most women habitually excluded from decision making roles on farms. Their work is often less highly regarded compared to men and their access to resources, such as training and education, tends to be restricted.

Recognising this, the FNC has made concerted efforts to empower female coffee farmers in recent years. Last year, for example, it launched a new line of coffees produced by women to promote equity and improve their visibility in the market.

In a largely male-dominated industry and culture, this is a welcome and promising step forward for a large, commodity-market focused player like the FNC. But it also leads us to ask: Where does Juan Valdez fit into all of this?

In the name of true traceability and inclusivity, coffee marketing should focus on promoting what the growers need support with in order to better commercialise their goods.

This includes acknowledging the contribution of women, while also highlighting the growing challenges producers face, from the effects of climate change to volatile prices. These should be taken into account with marketing campaigns as these issues are not only here to stay, they also directly threaten the livelihoods of producers.

Furthermore, it is tantamount that as an industry we are careful not to fetishize the lived experience of the coffee grower by depicting these individuals and crucial links in the supply chain as poverty-stricken and disenfranchised.

The tendency to precariously walk the line of cultural fetishisation is quickly becoming outdated, with roasters, importers and exporters alike choosing to move away from using photographs of rough hands and nameless pickers to directly sell their coffee beans.

In order to do right by farmers and to honour their dedication and the raw material, we must utilise the access and power that coffee marketing inherently holds, at its core being the communication of a shared value system.

When the Juan Valdez campaign was masterminded in the late 1950s, it was done so with a bold ambition to convey Colombia as the best coffee origin in the world.

Now this has been achieved, perhaps it is time to change course and start focusing on the issues that directly affect the country’s coffee producers today, leaving Juan Valdez and his mule as much-loved relics of the past.