It was the fifties and the world was changing, when a group of Colombian coffee growers stepped into a skyscraper in New York City and met with the advertising giant William Bernbach. They wanted to sell coffee in America, but more than that, they wanted to show Americans what coffee meant to them and hopefully America could come to see and love coffee as they loved it. Bernbach was already famous for having said, “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” This statement deeply resonated with his work; instead of creating a flashy character, Bernbach created Juan Valdez, a Colombian coffee grower true to the men actually growing coffee across the Andes.
Valdez had one job: to represent coffee growers and teach America what coffee was really all about. Auditions took place in Manhattan and the new image for Colombian coffee was established. Initially, many actors lined up at the big apple to try for the role and the Cuban Jose Duval secured the spot. He was a broadway man and brought his musical talent into the role, which was entertaining and attention grabbing, all big factors going into the success of this campaign!
Valdez started appearing in TV commercials where he would talk about coffee cherries, the impact of altitude in the coffee bean, all new information to Americans more used to see coffee as just a drink and not as something nurtured from the land. It was Valdez who first introduced the notions of coffee as a fine drink comparable to wine and distilled products. A luxury item that brought a sense of specialty to our daily lives.
The notion of Juan Valdez has moved towards a more authentic image, and nowadays there is no audition for an acting role. Instead, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (Federación Colombiana de Cafeteros) runs a search among actual coffee growers and picks the new Juan Valdez. On paper the requirements are simple. A man between 30 and 40 years old, of average height and rugged hands. Out of paper the qualities of the character are more unique and specific: someone who embodies the lifestyle, personality, and moral character of Juan Valdez.
Duval’s Broadway qualities made Juan Valdez famous, but he has little in common with the current Juan Valdez -Carlos Castañeda. A husband, father of three, from a family in the Andes mountains who has lost count of how many generations of their own have grown coffee. His first time in front of a camera happened when the previous Juan Valdez handed over his mule, leather bag, and ruana (a traditional shawl) in the middle of the field.
As the BBC reported in 2006 when he was appointed, Castañeda was no big-name, “Now even President Obama knows who he is.” Castañeda’s success in the role is based on the fact that the man is Juan Valdez. He doesn’t speak English but the Colombian President at the time translated on his behalf when Catañeda asked Obama if he would like a cup of coffee, to which Obama in surprise answered “Does Juan Valdez really exist?” as a kid who just caught Santa dropping by the fireplace.
When the BBC asked Castañeda about his future plans he answered “I want to be Juan Valdez for as long as God wants me to.” A telling gesture that this man is a humble worker with deep faith.
Being Juan Valdez is similar to being James Bond. It’s not just a gig, but a role carried for a lifetime and one with a legacy in the past going far beyond the creation of the advertisement character, and with a future reaching out far beyond our lives.
The fifties campaign was a success. Just months after the first commercial was released, a survey reported that 60% of Americans were willing to pay more for their cup of coffee if it was 100% Colombian. Furthermore, the impact was long lasting. Juan Valdez taught Americans to value the craft and origin of coffee; before him, every cup was the same.
This character appeared before the age of influencers and even celebrity-sponsored sales; yet the concept was the same -a man on a mission to convince you about his product. I would argue that another factor to his success is the fact that Juan Valdez as the man does not profit by sale, his motivation and interest in the job is simply to present to you what he and his fellows have proudly grown.
To this day, Juan Valdez still represents quality coffee. In Jim Carey’s popular movie Bruce Almighty, Carey’s first order of the day before starting to answer prayers as part of his new job as God, is to ask for the best coffee in the world. Then, Juan Valdez appears in his window with his mule (named Conchita) ready to pour some coffee in his cup. This scene brings a humble smile to every coffee grower.
There is an important lesson in success here, and it is to stand proudly and fearlessly for our craft. Valdez doesn’t boast, his humility is remarkable, but it is in his authentic simplicity where the world has come to appreciate his talent not only as a coffee grower, but as a professional who represents values we can all learn from.