Typica and Bourbon beans, brought to Vietnam by the French, once grew all over Cau Dat district in Lam Dong province, according to Dao Tran Phuong, who founded single-origin coffee maker Oriberry in 2008 under the auspices of the local NGO he heads, Advancement of Community Empowerment and Partnership. However, the emphasis on planting cheap coffee for export means that these varieties have been almost entirely replaced by higher-yielding beans.
“We provide the largest quantity of Robusta to the world, but it goes to the instant coffee industry, so consumers rarely recognize the origin of coffee beans,” Phuong told me. “Until our coffee is recognized by the world as high-quality, we won’t have a PDO.”
Failing to capitalize on recognizable terroirs can be costly. Growers in Buon Ma Thuot, a temperate area known as the “coffee capital” of Vietnam, found out in 2011 that a company in Guangzhou had already registered the Buon Ma Thuot trademark in China—a decade earlier. Other companies have registered it in Germany, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, South Korea and Japan, preventing producers in Buon Ma Thuot from doing so.
If you’ve heard of any Vietnamese coffee brand, it’s probably Trung Nguyen. Founded by Central Highlands native Dang Le Nguyen Vu in 1996, Trung Nguyen is now Vietnam’s biggest coffee label, and Vu aims to raise revenue to $1 billion by 2015. Most significant, however, is his marketing strategy. Like Red Boat and Oriberry, Trung Nguyen uses the idea of terroir to sell its products. Packaging emphasizes the fact that the “heirloom, gourmet” coffee comes from the coffee capital, Buon Ma Thuot.
“There’s a reason to believe in the brand: it’s authentic Vietnamese coffee from an area that’s recognized as being good,” Chris Elkin, managing director at the marketing agency red brand builders in Ho Chi Minh City, told me.
In 2006, Elkin helped Trung Nguyen create a “brand personality” for G7 instant coffee. “We came up with the name because there are seven good reasons to have the coffee,” Elkin said. “And the logo’s easy to recognize. Retail-friendly colors. Easy to resonate overseas.” Today, G7 brings in millions from exports, which he holds up triumphantly as proof that Vietnamese brands can achieve international success.
“If there’s a story to tell, a brand can be successful,” he said.
Red Boat certainly knows the power of storytelling: the company recently sponsored a trip to Vietnam for several Food Republic bloggers to “learn about fish sauce.” Marketing materials invoke the island’s exotic image and use words like “all-natural” and “umami-laden.”
This translates into major profits, especially for exports. In Hanoi, a large bottle of fish sauce costs about a dollar. Red Boat sends its “extra-virgin” fish sauce to gourmet retailers like Dean & Deluca in New York City’s SoHo, where a 250-ml bottle sells for $10.