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Market Focus : Colombia Savors Taste of Its Coffee's Success : Brazil, the longtime industry leader, is being pressed in its role as export king. Superior marketing and an excellent product are the key factors in Bogota's progress.

April 02, 1991|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — Juan Valdez, Colombia's symbolic Mr. Coffee, is symbolically counting his pesos with a warm glow of self-satisfaction, if not outright glee, these days.

The reason: In 1990 Colombia earned more from coffee exports than Brazil, the longtime titan of the international coffee market.

That's big news here. "Colombia Defeated Brazil in Coffee," boasted a Colombian newspaper headline when the news came out the other day. "Colombia, No. 1 World Coffee Exporter," declared another.

Although the coffee picture is not entirely bright for this country, Juan Valdez has good reason to be pleased. He is the fictional hero in a true story of spectacular marketing success.

You know Juan Valdez--the mustachioed man with the sombrero and the burro who appears on commercials and coffee labels offering "100% Colombian Coffee. . . . The richest coffee in the world."

It doesn't matter that Juan Valdez is not really a Colombian coffee grower but the creation of the New York advertising firm, Doyle Dane Bernbach (now DDB Needham Worldwide, Inc.). By repetition over three decades, the symbolic character has become familiar to Americans and Europeans as the emblem of superior quality in Colombian coffee.

That emphasis on quality is the essence of the Colombian marketing strategy, a concept that coffee experts say is not mere advertising hype.

Consumer Reports, the American product-testing publication, reported in its January issue that of 23 ground coffees tested, 100% Colombian samples swept the top five places in the ratings.

The mild, arabica strain of coffee grown in Colombia is generally regarded as less bitter and more aromatic than most Brazilian arabicas. Colombians also say the mountain climate and soils of their coffee-growing areas, their hand-harvesting techniques and their method of washing off the coffee cherry's hull all enhance their product's taste.

So, although Brazil still exported more 132-pound bags of coffee than Colombia last year, Colombia's earnings jumped ahead of Brazil's, $1.5 billion to $1.3 billion.

The only other time Colombia out-earned Brazil was in 1986, when the Brazilians held back coffee exports as part of a failed effort to manipulate world prices.

Their success is reflected in the headquarters of the Coffee Growers Federation of Colombia--a red-brick, 12-story, two-tower office building on the upscale north side of Bogota. Outside the modern headquarters is a sign featuring--who else?--Juan Valdez, his burro and a jagged mountain peak. Inside is an elevator that calls out the floors in a recorded voice as it rises: Piso nueve, subiendo (9th floor, going up.)

On the 11th floor is Alvaro Sabogal, the federation's advertising manager, whose pin-stripe suit and paisley tie speak of Madison Avenue. Sabogal speaks of success.

It all started in 1959, the year DDB brewed up the image of Juan Valdez.

"They started showing the situation of coffee growing in Colombia, using Juan Valdez," Sabogal says. The mustachioed character was shown demonstrating how Colombian coffee beans were selected for ripeness, then picked by hand, then carefully processed.

The campaign aimed not only at consumers, with television spots on national networks, but also at institutional buyers, with ads in trade publications. Posters of some of those ads hang on the wall behind Sabogal's desk.

"Colombian coffee is now being served in the starboard lounge," says one of the posters. It shows an ocean liner listing to starboard.

"Captain, we forgot the Colombian coffee," says another poster showing a jetliner doing a U-turn in the sky. At the bottom of both posters is the familiar logo of Juan Valdez, his burro and his mountain.

The federation also helps pay for advertising by roasters who retail 100% Colombian coffee and who say so on their products' labels, Sabogal says. It's a tempting incentive for roasters, who "have been switching a lot to brands of 100% Colombian," Sabogal adds.

Before the "100% Colombian" campaign, American roasters almost invariably blended Colombian coffee with Brazilian arabicas and African robustas. The idea of the campaign is to tell discerning sippers that pure Colombian is something like vintage wine.

"We are not doing it for people who buy compact cars, but rather Rolls-Royces," he says. "It is a bit of an elitist product."

The federation spends more than $20 million a year on advertising around the world, according to Sabogal, with an increasing share currently going to Japan and Asia.

The switch reflects Colombia's increasingly diverse markets. In 1958, 78% of the country's coffee exports went to the United States and 20% to Europe. In 1990, 36% went to German buyers, 19% to the United States, 8% to Japan, 5% to the Netherlands, 4% to Sweden and more than 2% each to Canada, Britain, France, Belgium, Finland and Spain.

Total exports of coffee have soared from 5.4 million bags in 1958 to 13.9 million in 1990.

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