The architect of two of Vietnam’s most successful coffee brands, Le Hoang Diep Thao was among the pioneers of Vietnamese franchising and was strongly influential in transforming coffee consumption within this country. Listed alongside the most powerful female CEOs in Vietnam, Mme. Thao shares her outlook on the trade prior to the global release of her business biography The Queen of King Coffee.

You’ve guided your king coffee brand through an extraordinary period of growth within five short years of trading. How have you positioned the brand to perform competitively in global markets despite being so new to the market?

The international market is always crowded with competitors. Every country has its own unique coffee trends, tastes and needs, and there is no common strategy for all markets, just a common goal of conquering markets and the base entrepreneurial spirit of daring to go out to sea.

My colleagues and I had to map out a distinctive, tailored strategy suited to each local coffee market.

To do that efficiently, I divide the international market into seven broad coffee regions. The first region covers Vietnam where we’re headquartered and where our domestic market is very important. The international market divides into six regions including APAC, Greater China, North & South America, India, Russia and the CIS, and MENA. Each region has certain challenges with different tastes and many big players in the industry, so only a tailored strategy can break into those markets. For that, our baseline is always the old mantra, think global, act local throughout the organization at all levels.

In your new book The Queen of King Coffee, you talk about how the original Trung Nguyen became one of Vietnam’s earliest success stories for an agricultural brand. What made you consider branding to be such an important part of this industry, and how has the situation improved since your early days in business?

I’ve had a brand-focused mindset from a very early age, since 1996 when I started my business with Trung Nguyen. At that time, the secret of coffee roasting and processing was often hereditary, the business scope was small and there was no long-term development strategy. I wanted to create a brand that could go beyond Buon Ma Thuot, spread to the whole country and reach larger segments. So I paid attention to understanding customers better, making better products, developing more eye-catching packaging and being able to bring meaningful and different experiences and stories through the coffee chain.

Choosing to build a true Vietnamese coffee brand is much more complex than the straight export of raw materials, but that’s the only way to build a long-term and sustainable business in this industry—not only in bringing more turnover from exports, but also affirming the country’s position and prestige in the world. Besides, Vietnam’s coffee exports are mainly green coffee, so it has low value and has not yet built a brand reputation to enhance added value and visibly participate in the global value chain. The only way to the world market is to elevate the Vietnamese brand.

You’re also known as a proponent of the strength of female entrepreneurship in Vietnam, which has the highest proportion of female executives in the region. What is the character of Vietnam’s women entrepreneurs and what makes them stand out here?

Vietnam has a gradually increasing percentage of women in leadership positions and women are valued more highly than before. The ability to empathize and be flexible, as well as to have a somewhat drastic approach are the advantages of female leaders. The character of Vietnamese women is rich in selflessness and sacrifice, always living for others and in a collective spirit. Women grow up to always put the interests of the majority first, which is something considered very precious among Vietnamese women.

However, gender stereotypes are still there, the patriarchy of men, doubts about women’s abilities still remain. Over the past 20 years, however, I have gone to many international conferences and found that Vietnamese women have left strong impressions on international friends.

Vietnam is one of the world’s largest coffee exporters and yet the country hasn’t managed to achieve a high level of global recognition. As someone who has spent her career promoting Vietnamese coffee in global markets, what are the challenges facing the industry, and what can Vietnam do to boost visibility for its output?

With a strong production force, Vietnamese coffee today accounts for 1/5 to 1/4 of the total world supply, which mainly consists of raw robusta coffee beans. Although it’s these robusta beans exported to other countries that will be used to mix with arabica beans to create delicious and world-famous coffee products, not everyone understands and appreciates the robusta beans from Vietnam. This has caused the name of Vietnamese coffee to miss its optimal positioning.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has caused people’s consumption habits to change, with an uptick in consumers choosing to drink coffee at home. This is an opportunity for instant coffee products to shine for their convenience value, soluble coffee that can be made easily at home.

Instant coffee accounts for 14 percent of the world’s coffee consumption demand and will continue to increase in the future. Vietnam therefore has the opportunity to become the world’s leading instant coffee producer due to its abundant source of robusta coffee, which is the main raw material for processing instant coffee.

I think it’s time for the Vietnamese coffee industry to rethink, redesign, and re-operate. The coffee industry must develop good brands and address the basic standards of Fair Trade.

What are the opportunities ahead for Vietnamese brands, and how should new companies seek to position themselves for exports?

Vietnam has a foothold in four major markets, namely ASEAN, CPTPP, EVFTA and RCEP. In addition, there is a very new market for Halal serving two billion people with a great potential for Vietnamese agricultural products.

Recently, I took a business trip to Dubai to attend the International Exhibition EXPO 2020, which is opening up international development opportunities for Vietnamese coffee and agricultural products through the Dubai gateway. Dubai is known to be a very highvalue gateway to the world market. Businesses from 198 countries are exempt from tax and all investment procedures there. Operating there is very easy and convenient.

The government of Dubai has invested close to US$9 billion in the expo, which covers a total area of 48 hectares—many times more than Disneyland—built and organised to hold bustling and exciting daily activities. Every five years the World Exhibition is an opportunity to project the country’s image in terms of culture, science, tourism and progressive achievements. Therefore, EXPO 2020 in Dubai is not only helping visitors to visit and experience the whole world in one place, but also opens up opportunities to access 192 markets every day from Dubai. This event is worthy for businesses to participate in to access opportunities to reach out to the world. [C]

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