Vietnam’s Coffee King Takes Aim at Starbucks

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Vietnam is the world’s second-biggest coffee exporter, a fact that probably comes as a surprise to most westerners. And now a local entrepreneur is hoping to leverage his country’s crucial position as a commodity supplier into a value-added brand play the likes of Starbucks.

Dang Le Nguyen Vu, Vietnam’s “Coffee King,” seems to have no illusions about mimicking Starbucks overnight. But the owner of the Trung Nguyen brand of coffee told Reuters that he has the U.S. chain in his sights as a marketing model for Vietnam so that its brew and its brand — not just its beans — can have an impact.

“Our ambition is to become a global brand,” he told the news service. His company already runs Vietnam’s largest chai of coffee houses, and now he’s hoping to build a brand that could get a foothold in the U.S. and other mature coffee markets.

Vu argues that Starbucks isn’t real coffee — or real committed to its lofty corporate citizenship platform. He swipes at the bigger coffee purveyor to Reuters with the statement that “they are not selling coffee, they are selling coffee-flavored water with sugar in it.” What’s more, he adds, Starbucks is selling “a story.” For all the coffee behemoth focuses on sustainability and corporate responsibility, “at the end of the day, the return on investment is what they care about. They don’t grow coffee, do they? We do.”

While Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz might beg to differ with that assessment, Vu says he’s depending on the sustainability positioning of coffee farmers in Vietnam’s highland region to serve as a focus for his brand as he brings it to the west. “American consumers don’t need another product,” he said. “They need another story.”

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