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Carlos Castaneda, 39, who was named Colombia's new Juan Valdez in 2006, poses with "Conchita" in Bogota (DANIEL MUNOZ/REUTERS)
Carlos Castaneda, 39, who was named Colombia's new Juan Valdez in 2006, poses with "Conchita" in Bogota (DANIEL MUNOZ/REUTERS)

The importance of 'Juan Valdez' Add to ...

Before Pablo Escobar came to personify Colombia's deadly cocaine trade, coffee icon Juan Valdez presented North Americans with a more peaceful, even bucolic image of the South American country.

For more than 50 years, "Juan Valdez" has been the face of Colombian coffee - promoting the country's reputation for quality coffee and, more recently, flogging a brand marketed by the National Federation of Colombia Coffee Growers, which represents more than 500,000 producers.

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Last month, the iconic farmer - clad as ever in his Panama hat, leather satchel and serape - travelled to Vancouver to launch his eponymous brand at a chain of London Drugs stores in the B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

The Colombian delegation - complete with a local stand-in mule for Juan's Conchita - had a number of media interviews, including a radio session at Rock 101 in the downtown TD Tower. Both "Juan" and the mule - which came with its own human pooper scooper - boarded the elevator to the station's 21st floor studio.

On air, the mule brayed on cue, the unilingual Juan Valdez bid a buenos dias to listeners, and the federation's communications director, Luis Fernando Samper, took over the microphone to extol the virtues of Colombia coffee.

The Juan Valdez brand is one of the most valuable in the world. In a 2005 Advertising Week poll, consumers voted the Colombian character the most popular advertising icon in the U.S., outpolling Geico Corp.'s gecko and Ronald McDonald.

Juan Valdez is, in fact, the 1959 brainchild of a Madison Avenue advertising agency to promote Colombia coffee in the U.S. market. The original character was not even Colombian but a Cuban-American actor named Jose Duval.

Previously selling to wholesalers, the federation in 2002 launched its own in-house Juan Valdez brand, first to chain coffee shops and then to retailers. It has also developed a network of Juan Valdez cafes across Colombia.

When Juan II - Colombian Carlos Sanchez - decided to retire in 2006, the federation launched an extensive, two-year search for his replacement from among its legions of coffee farmers.

The process was akin to American Idol, Colombian-style. Hundreds of candidates signed confidentiality agreements, were interviewed, competed in contests, and were encouraged to grow mustaches or dye the gray out of them where necessary.

The winner was Carlos Castaneda, a third-generation coffee grower from Antioquia who farms a 10-hectare plot with his wife and two sons.

Mr. Samper said the new Juan embodies the virtues of honesty, hard work and pride.

"Despite his campesino outfit, Juan Valdez is still relevant to consumers because of his values and the intention of growers to create a coffee brand for themselves, with no artificial help, and take their destiny in their own hands by selling their own coffee and implementing their own sustainability programs," Mr. Samper said.

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