Refilling the role of Juan Valdez

Kai Ryssdal May 31, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: After 37 years, Carlos Sanchez is hanging up his poncho. You say you’ve never heard of him? You probably do know his “nom de cafe” . . . Juan Valdez. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation is in search of a replacement. But how do you replace an icon? I put that question to David Altschul. He’s a branding consultant. And he was was hired to help find a new face for Columbian coffee. Or a really similar face.

DAVID ALTSCHUL: We understand that Juan Valdez is a fictional character played by an actor. But the reality, of course, is that Juan Valdez is a fictional manifestation of 500,000 real, small coffee farmers who make up this federation.
RYSSDAL: What are you looking for? I mean, you gotta have a mustache, probably, right?

ALTSCHUL: Well, it’s interesting . . . The federation is actually looking for a backstory rather than inventing one.

RYSSDAL: So you’re going to go find a real guy and take his backstory?

ALTSCHUL: In essence, yes. And I know it sounds silly, but let me explain it. The federation could have made the choice of simply hiring another actor who looks like Carlos Sanchez, and it would have been seamless. I think what they’ve done is take the opportunity to deepen the story and they’ve looked deliberately within the ranks of the cafeteros, the small coffee farmers, and they have to have a personal story that connects them authentically with the coffee culture.

RYSSDAL: When you sit down in your office and try to think about how to deepen the Juan Valdez story, as you mentioned, what does that mean? How do you do that?

ALTSCHUL: Well, we didn’t actually do it in our office. We went to the mountains of Colombia a year-and-a-half ago to look at the story of Juan Valdez and the story of the federation. Understand, you know, what the conflicts are that drive that story and make it engaging for an audience. To understand what the human truth is underneath it that would allow people to make some kind of emotional connection. And then, based on that, to give them some guidelines for how to move ahead with the selection of a new person to play the role.

RYSSDAL: Obviously the end result here is that the Colombian coffee growers association wants to sell more coffee. How is this going to do that?

ALTSCHUL: I think that a brand is a story. I think that any brand that doesn’t have a story deeper than the money story inexorably becomes a commodity. Here we have a product that started out as a commodity and the coffee federation itself, beginning with the Juan Valdez campaign, developed a story that elevated it above the commodity status. Now, you know, in the last 15 years or so Starbucks and others have taken over that story and built it, you know, miles beyond where the original Juan Valdez story went. But, still, the idea of taking a commodity and turning it into a brand — something that people will pay a premium for, that people will experience some loyalty for — is all about story. It’s actually nothing but story.

RYSSDAL: David Altschul is the president of Character, that’s a Portland, Oregon, firm that deals and specializes in branding and character development. Mr. Altschul, thanks a lot for your time.

ALTSCHUL: It was a pleasure.

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