September 22, 2021

Understanding “100% Colombian Coffee” & why it has been so successful


Colombia is recognised globally as one of the world’s leading producers of good quality coffee. The local coffee sector has flourished for decades, thanks in no small part to the hugely successful “100% Colombian Coffee” marketing strategy. 

This label has influenced the price of Colombian coffee, consumer perception, and many countries have sought to replicate it or adopt similar models.

To get a better understanding of the origins of this strategy, I spoke to two experts involved in the campaign, as well as a Colombian coffee exporter. Read on to learn more about the evolution of Colombian coffee marketing and its impact on the coffee industry.

You may also like our article on the meaning of “100% arabica”.

A newspaper clipping of a 100% Colombian coffee advert.

Recognising the need for marketing

In the late 1950s, Colombia was the world’s second-largest coffee producer after Brazil. It exported more than 75% of its production to the United States. However, only 4% of US consumers knew where this coffee was coming from.

Luis Fernando Samper is the founder and director of 4.0 Brands, a Colombian marketing firm that was involved in the “100% Colombian Coffee” campaign between 1997 and 2016. He is also the co-author of the book Juan Valdez: The Strategy Behind the Brand.

Luis tells me that in the 1960s, the Colombian economy was struggling because of low international coffee prices resulting from a global oversupply. After continued price decreases year-on-year, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC) set out to strengthen the profile of Colombian coffee on the international stage.

He adds: “Producing countries in general were trying to boost coffee consumption during the post-war years. 

“They still had a huge stock of coffee that they had been unable to sell because of the war. There were also a range of efforts to promote coffee consumption.”

Eduardo Libreros Dávila worked for the FNC for 25 years. He says that despite the fact that the USA was importing the majority of Colombia’s coffee, an FNC study concluded that North Americans did not recognise the country as a major coffee producer. Instead, most consumers assumed that it came from Brazil or Africa. 

The FNC’s response was an advertising campaign developed by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency of New York. The agency created the iconic Juan Valdez character, looking to represent the hard-working coffee growing families of Colombia.

Eduardo recalls: “The first campaign showed some photographs of a coffee farmer wearing a hat, a mule behind him, and some small bags of Colombian coffee on the mule’s back that read: ‘Colombian coffee’. It was all about getting Colombia recognised as an origin.”

He says that initially, Juan Valdez was not a brand, but an image representing Colombian coffee. The idea was to educate consumers and the industry about why Colombian coffee was different. 

Bags of 100% Colombian coffee piled up.

Building a brand identity

The FNC’s campaign was characterised by a triangular logo featuring Juan Valdez, his mule, named Conchita, and the Colombian Andes. These were accompanied by the words “100% Colombian Coffee” or “100% Café de Colombia”, depending on the market.

The “100% Colombian Coffee” message sought to convince roasters to buy and roast Colombian coffee, with the promise of high-quality beans from a single origin. At the time, most roasters were purchasing robusta at low prices and blending it with arabica to cut costs. 

Eduardo says: “Roasters were very reluctant to include any information about origins on the coffee packaging, and they were very happy selling blends. 

“When we insisted, they said: ‘Well, we would be willing to claim that the coffee is Colombian, but how much would you pay for that?’”

In response to this guarded interest, the FNC launched the “33% campaign” in the 1970s. Participation gave the roaster a discount on the value of the coffee (or some subsidy) in exchange for using at least 33% Colombian coffee in their blends. This ratio was gradually increased to 50%, then 75%, before reaching 100%. 

“Furthermore, if the price exploded because of any problem, [buyers] had a price guarantee,” Eduardo adds. “It was good business to buy from the Colombians.”

Among the North American companies brought in by this proposal were Kraft General Foods and Folger’s, which started selling coffee with the “100% Colombian Coffee” label in 1987 and 1994, respectively.

juan valdez logo

A strategy that worked 100%

Within a matter of years, there was tangible proof that the campaign had worked. The 100% Colombian Coffee segment in North America represented 646,000 60kg bags in 1982 – a figure that increased over four times to 2.5 million bags in 2000.

At the same time, the campaign contributed to Colombian coffee maintaining a relatively higher price than coffees from other origins. Between 1982 and 2000, Colombian coffee was sold at an average of US $0.10/lb more than other origins.

Luis also notes that when the ICO imposed export quotas in 1982, the only way to maximise income when volumes were restricted was to increase premiums. As such, the FNC tried to use the campaign to maximise demand for Colombian coffee so that the premiums would increase.

“The aim was to maximise the premium with that campaign. But for that premium to increase, there had to be specific demand for Colombian coffee,” Luis explains. “Therefore, the need arose to promote brands that sell 100% Colombian coffee.”

An FNC study concluded that this “origin differentiation strategy” boosted the demand for Colombian coffee, and that it had been an overwhelming success.

Various brands of instant coffee made with 100% Colombian coffee.

Targeting coffee at major consumer countries

Until a while ago, the claim “100% Colombian Coffee” was probably more familiar outside of Colombia than in the country itself. 

This is because the campaign was focused on markets in the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia, as buyers were willing to pay a higher price for their coffee. 

Around 95% of FNC’s outgoing investments were targeted at these markets for years, looking at existing coffee consumers in these countries. Eduardo says that specialist media and international television channels were used to spread the message.

For example, NBC’s Today, a news programme in the US, proved to be an effective channel as it aired during breakfast. The logo even appeared on seat backs onboard American Airlines flights, reading “Colombian Coffee is now on board on American Airlines”.

At one time, according to global surveys conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, the “100% Colombian Coffee” logo enjoyed an 85% association rate, ahead of well-known brands like Woolmark, Starbucks, and Nike.

Popularity in Colombia

Alejandro Cadena is the CEO of Caravela Coffee. He explains that the campaign was not historically successful in Colombia, as there was traditionally a big gap between what the country produced and what was consumed. 

“Until 2016, you couldn’t export pasilla (coffee too low-quality for export). Therefore, what was left in the country was all inferior byproducts. 

“The campaign was designed to sell our best coffee, always abroad. Colombians didn’t have the opportunity to taste their best coffees.”

In the 21st century, however, the FNC recognised this and launched a programme called “Toma Café” to increase coffee consumption in Colombia. It managed to generate a 33% increase in coffee consumption between 2009 and 2015, also increasing the consumption of higher quality coffees produced locally.

Since then, the FNC has allowed Colombian coffee brands and roasters to use the “100% Colombian Coffee” logo.

A cup of coffee branded with "Café de Colombia".

Are there similar campaigns out there?

One would think that the results of the “100% Colombian Coffee” campaign would lead other countries to adopt similar strategies. However, this hasn’t really been the case.

A 2000 FNC document claimed that some producing countries considered the idea of designing their own campaigns. They even explored the option of Colombia sharing the Juan Valdez brand with other origin countries, and they offered between US $9 and $10 million for its use. However, this idea never materialised. 

Alejandro tells me that so far, only the “100% arabica” denomination exists, and it is markedly different in its purpose. Other origins have opted for more generic denominations, such as “Cafés do Brasil”, “Café de Costa Rica”, or “Café de Guatemala”. 

Eduardo, meanwhile, explains that such a large-scale strategy required an enormous investment that only Colombia and Brazil could afford at the time. For others, it was simply too expensive.

He says: “It was not easy to think that you could invest US $20 million, or US $25 million per year in a ‘100% Colombian’ campaign. These are things that were achieved almost exclusively during the emergence of the Colombian coffee business, which had extraordinary margins. Today, it would be difficult to do so.” 

In addition, Luis tells me that nowadays, consumers are better informed and need different and more complex channels of communication for something so comprehensive. A generic TV commercial is simply not enough.

A newspaper clipping of a 100% Colombian coffee advert.

Market regulation & coffee quality

This campaign could have been seen by competitors as an opportunity to engage in unfair business practices. However, the FNC took upon itself to create legal and juridical regulations to guarantee that coffee sold under the “100% Colombian Coffee” label met certain quality standards. 

Luis explains that in order to use the triangular logo, buyers must meet certain minimum quality standards related to the certification of Usually Good Quality (UGQ) coffee. UGQ beans have adequate physical and sensory attributes that make them suitable for export.

“In practice, inferior pasilla coffees may not use the logo,” he says. “Nowadays, it is increasingly complicated to control this, as export regulations have changed. 

“What is true is that there was always an effort to ensure that the logo was associated with a minimum quality, not a maximum quality.”

The FNC also clearly states that roasters wishing to sign a brand license agreement must comply with certain parameters. 

These include proof that the business has consistently roasted at least one brand of 100% Colombian coffee of excellent quality (or export type). They must also apply for Denomination of Origin or Protected Geographical Indication authorisation in the European Union and Switzerland.

These guidelines have largely protected Colombian coffee from fraud, allowing the industry to win legal disputes against those who take advantage of the reputation of Colombian coffee to sell other origins. 

Luis also notes that in North America, the term “Colombian” functions as a certification mark. 

“When you print a claim on the coffee packaging that [the product is] Colombian, in US or Canada, it has to first meet the minimum quality requirements, even if you don’t use the triangular logo,” he says.

A Colombian man drinking 100% Colombian coffee.

The “100% Colombian Coffee” campaign remains a landmark development in coffee sector marketing. As well as establishing Colombia as an origin of “quality”, the strategy also promoted the work of coffee farmers and positioned them well to sell in an international market.

A similar campaign would probably not have the same effect today. Consumers and market demands are simply too different than they were a few decades ago. 

However, it also shows us that when national coffee institutions successfully invest in these initiatives at such a scale, there can be massive benefits. Whether it’s for domestic consumption or promoting an origin internationally, it’s clear that these strategies can be extremely influential when they work.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the history of marketing in the coffee sector.

Photo credits: Tatiana Guerrero, Periódico La Patria.

Perfect Daily Grind

Originally posted on PDG Español. Translated by Tati Calderón Cea. 

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