Juan Valdez: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Colombian Coffee Icon
The coffee industry has had its share coffee spokespeople over the years, both fictional and nonfictional.
Folgers had Mrs. Olsen for over 20 years. Played by veteran character actor Virginia Christine, Mrs. Olsen carried a can of Folgers with her at all times, saving many marriages that were on the rocks due to bad coffee. Maxwell House had Cora, proprietor of a small general store in the country. Played by Margaret Hamilton, famous for her role as the wicked witch of the west, Cora only sold one brand of coffee in her little store. And, of course, those of a certain age cannot forget it was baseball legend Joe DiMaggio who helped reintroduced Americans to filter drip coffee as the spokesperson for Mr. Coffee brand brewers. The bigger than life “Joltin Joe” was a coffee product spokesperson for nearly as long as the fictional Mrs. Olsen.
There have been many others, from an early prototype of Kermit the Frog doing 10 second commercials for Wilkins Coffee in the late 50’s, to George Clooney pitching Nespresso; but for longevity and pure iconic-ness, none of them can really compare to Juan Valdez, the advertising character who has been representing National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers for over 60 years.
You are probably familiar with the image of Juan Valdez, his signature mustache, traditional garb, and faithful mule in tow. But there are some things you probably didn’t know.
- The Juan Valdez character was created by famed New York ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). Although DDB is today a global marketing and communications powerhouse, in 1958 when they developed the Juan Valdez concept for the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers the agency was only 10 years old. They were just on the verge of introducing the famous “think small” advertising campaign for Volkswagen. In 1960, the year of the first Juan Valdez TV commercial, DDB created the very successful "We Try Harder Because We're Number 2" campaign for Avis rental cars, a version of which the company still uses today. If you’re old enough to remember Joe DiMaggio pitching Mr. Coffee, then you probably remember the “Mikey likes it” cereal commercials of the same era, another campaign created by DDB.
- The first Juan Valdez was played by an actor from Cuba named Jose Duval. Although he wasn’t a coffee farmer and wasn’t from Colombia, Duval had a lot of performing experience. He came to America in the late 30’s to pursue a career in Opera, which led to musical theatre and film work. He played lead roles in Kismet, South Pacific, and several production of The King and I. He brought life to the character of Juan Valdez for 10 years. Mr. Duval died in 1993.
- In 1961, Juan Valdez released an album. That’s right, Jose Duval as Juan Valdez released an album, “Song of Juan Valdez—Music of Colombia with Ray Martin, his Chorus and Orchestra.” The album featured both traditionally styled Colombian music and contemporary songs, including The Coffee House with some lyrics sung in English, including: “In my little coffee house there are a lot of fools. They think I am very broke, but I’m really very rich. Everybody thinks my pockets are empty, they don’t know that I am really very rich.”
- The first Juan Valdez TV commercial in 1960 focused on coffee agronomics. For 20 years most Juan Valdez television commercial sought to educate coffee drinkers about ideal coffee growing and harvesting conditions. In 1960, most consumers didn’t know coffee came from fruit grown on trees. At the beginning of his first commercial, Juan’s mule is refusing to budge and the voiceover declares, “You think he’s stubborn? You don’t know Juan Valdez.” It turns out Juan is stubborn because he refuses to grow coffee below 5,000 feet, insists on growing coffee under shade trees, and picks only ripe cherries, harvesting them “one-by-one” by hand. Sounds like a specialty coffee commercial.
- It took only five months for the Juan Valdez campaign to have measurable impact on consumer perceptions. Just five months after the Juan Valdez commercial was introduced to the American public, the number of coffee drinkers identifying Colombian coffee as excellent increased by 300%, and 60% of those surveyed said they were willing to pay more for Colombian coffee. Even DDB was surprised, having expected the campaign to take two years to show results.
- The Juan Valdez campaign led to marketing of the first single origin national brand. So demonstrable was the positive impact of the Juan Valdez campaign that in 1964, General Foods switched one of its most popular blends, Yuban, to 100% Colombian coffee, a moniker that would remain synonymous with the brand for decades. At the time, commercial coffee quality was in decline, creating a world where bean retailers like Peets and Starbucks would soon emerge. But before the arrival of these specialty coffee merchants, a single origin arabica grown under good conditions and run through modern mills could stand apart from blended commodity coffee of the day. Much of the coffee then available in supermarkets was a mix of low altitude Brazilian Arabica and African Robusta with some Central American coffee mixed in to make it semi-palatable. When coffee drinkers of the time said 100% Colombian coffee was the best coffee they had ever tasted, they weren’t exaggerating.
- The second Juan Valdez was from Colombia. Carlos Sanchez was the second Juan Valdez (though not his voice, see #8) for 36 years, appearing in commercials and in countless personal appearances all over the world, including the 1999 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference and exposition in Philadelphia where he posed for a photo with the association’s Director of Marketing and Communications (ahem). Mr. Sanchez passed away in 2019.
- Unlike his predecessor, Carlos Sanchez didn’t bring his voice to the character. Sanchez was the face of Juan Valdez but the voice—at least in TV commercials—was that of veteran character actor and announcer Norman Rose, whose film and TV roles spanned more than 40 years and included the voice of Mr. Mad for the cartoon series Tennessee Tuxedo
- Juan Valdez’ mule is named Conchita. In early commercials, Juan and Conchita seemed to have a somewhat contentious relationship, the mule sometimes refusing to follow him. The relationship became more harmonious over time, with Conchita perpetually carrying two bags of coffee on her back no matter what Juan was doing or where or when.
- The third Juan Valdez is not only Colombian, but a coffee farmer too. Carlos Castaneda (not the writer) took over the role of Juan Valdez in 2006. Castaneda is a coffee grower from the department of Antioquia, in Northwestern Colombia. His farm sits on 7.5 hilly acres with 15,000 trees outside the town of Andes. Castaneda allowed his photo to be submitted as a potential Juan Valdez almost on a lark. He was selected from among 400 coffee growers under consideration. Carlos Sanches handed over the reins (literally, the reins for Conchita) to Castaneda along other accessories worn by the Valdez Character for over 60 years in a ceremony staged on a coffee farm.
When Juan Valdez was originally introduced to the people he would represent, Colombian coffee farmers, the response was not enthusiastic. Some felt his appearance was too stereotypically traditional and they didn’t appreciate the mule as a sidekick because they were proud of their roads and modern infrastructure. But over the decades, the character of Juan Valdez has become appreciated and even beloved by many Colombians as a positive ambassador for the country. When Castaneda returned to his hometown from the official icon hand-off ceremony with Sanchez, dressed as Juan Valdez, he was greeted by large crowds of well-wishers, many of them crying. That’s when it struck Castaneda that he had taken on an important responsibility. So that, maybe, is another thing or two you didn’t know about Juan Valdez.