From Coca Country to Coffee Wonderland


A case worth mentioning when talking about coffee advertisement and its exoticness and the way labor is portrayed in advertising is Juan Valdez’ venture into the US coffee market. In the 1950s, an excess supply in world markets led to a collapse of Colombian coffee, from $0.85 to $0.45 per pound. Faced with this situation, the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC) had to act, and fast. They decided to create a global brand for Colombian coffee that would increase demand, raise prices, and an improved standard of living for growers. As a consequence of this branding efforts, American “consumers began to grasp that not all coffee was created equal” (Kumar and Steenkamp 2013, pg 198) and that Colombian coffee was worth the extra price.

Not only that, Juan Valdez was also used to educate Americans about the origins of Colombian coffee. The early ads showed Juan Valdez, with his mule, crossing mountains, and picking the “richest coffee in the world,” as a narrator explains in of their tv commercials. The way in which the character of Juan Valdez was portrayed in the media reinforced the notion of the exotic “other”. The idea of ‘otherness’ is central to analyze how majority and minority identities are constructed. This is because the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power. The FNC creation of the brand and fictional character of Juan Valdez–a mustachioed farmer, with poncho over his shoulder and trusty mule at his side–played with the concept of otherness. On one hand it helped make Colombian world famous, and on the other it contributed to “counter the image of Colombia, battered by more than 30 years of guerrilla insurgency, as a cocaine- infested battlefield” (Source). By reinforcing this image of a nice and vulnerable farmer, they showed that there was more to Colombia than only cocaine and guerrilla, even if they did it by playing with a stereotype.


This particular ad is emotional and informational at the same time. On one hand, it talks about the virtues of Colombian coffee and the success it had in American households (“A recent survey indicates that most Americans believe that Colombian Coffee is the best in the world”, the ad states). On the other, it uses comedy and irony as appealing tools. By making fun of the way the character Juan Valdez and his loyal companion, his donkey, are handling their success, they are also being ironic at those who do not consume Colombian coffee.

It is important to note that the creation of the character of Juan Valdez is a carefully crafted personifying strategy that was incredibly successful. As a Slate article states, “Until the emergence of Shakira, Valdez was the Colombian celebrity most known to Americans”. By doing this, the FNC created an approachable brand that the American consumers found appealing.


  • A Coffee Icon Rides His Mule Off Into the Sunset, by Juan Forero. New York Times. November 24, 2001 – Link
  • Inside the Coffee Renaissance in Colombia, by Jessica Weiss. Fast Company. August 21, 2014 – Link
  • Nirmalya Kumar and Jan-Benedict Steenkamp. Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands Will Go Global. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015 – Link

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