East Asia has always been a region dominated by tea culture, but in the past few decades, as elsewhere in the world, coffee culture has been exploding, especially among the younger generations.
However, as anyone who has been to Taiwan or any of the hot and humid countries of Southeast Asia will realize, these are not necessarily the places most suited to sipping a hot brew. These are countries where a refreshing iced coffee is much more welcome.
Here we look at how Taiwanese Mr. Brown Coffee became a ubiquitous and much-loved drink all over the Far East and further afield.
The birth of Mr. Brown
1970s Taiwan was a place full of energy and vigor. Western ideas were flooding in, and the Taiwanese were eagerly adopting foreign fashions. In this environment, coffee, then an exotic and almost mysterious drink, became more and more in vogue.
In 1979, a local soft drinks company named King Car was founded in Chung Li city, Taoyuan. At first, they produced root beer, but the company soon began casting its eyes over to Japan, where sales of iced coffee were taking off (1).
The people at King Car spotted an opportunity. As coffee had become more popular in Taiwan over the preceding decade, they saw a market for Japanese-style iced coffee sold in cans and decided to launch their own product, Mr. Brown Coffee.
The development of the Mr. Brown brand and the associated smiling, bearded man of the same name who adorns the products is an interesting story.
King Car wanted a product that would capture the imagination of the forward-looking and optimistic people of the time. The coffee itself was seen as modern and chic, and they wanted a character who reinforced this image of their product.
For this reason, they chose to create a jovial and friendly-looking man with a beard and the now-famous thumbs-up gesture.
Mr. Brown the character is supposed to represent a Brazilian due to the characteristics of hospitality, generosity, heartiness and enthusiasm supposedly associated with that country (2).
His nationality was also an obvious choice for another reason; Brazil is the country that produces the largest annual coffee crop in the world.
He is a cheerful and passionate character who is always seen with a big smile, while his beard and hat identify him as an amiable, avuncular gentleman.
His name was also carefully chosen for several reasons. First, it was a name that schoolkids would be familiar with from English classes and was again supposed to appeal to their sense of the exotic.
Another reason was the association of the name with the color of the drink; a third – and perhaps less obvious to non-Chinese speaking readers – was the ease of rendering the word “Brown” in the Chinese language since the drink would need to be marketed using both languages.
Check out this video of a Chinese-language Taiwanese classic Mr. Brown TV commercial.
Success in Taiwan, Southeast Asia and around the world
The concept, the branding and the marketing paid off. Since its launch in 1982, Mr. Brown coffee has gone on to dominate the canned iced coffee market in the land of its birth. For any visitor to the island, a 7-Eleven or a Family Mart stocking Mr. Brown coffees is never far away.
And as anyone who has been to Taiwan during the hottest months of the year will know, ducking into a convenience store for a quick can of Mr. Brown can provide a welcome respite from the oppressive sun and humidity outside!
From there, the product spread to the countries of Southeast Asia. It is now readily available in convenience stores in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, where it competes with other established international brands such as Nestlé.
It is perhaps no surprise that Mr. Brown met with success in these countries. These are all places with hot climates where innovations like iced coffee have been readily adopted.
Vietnam and Thailand have their own established coffee cultures, and both are producers of coffee, especially Vietnam – it is now the second-largest producers of coffee beans in the world, after Brazil. However, it seems there was space in the market for a high-quality ready-to-drink iced coffee.
Europe, on the other hand, was a different proposition. Many European countries are large consumers of coffee, but they all have their own, well-established coffee traditions which in general don’t include iced coffee.
With the explosion of international chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, drinking iced coffee is becoming more widespread, but canned iced coffee is still in the process of being taken up, and Mr. Brown is still not a major player.
There has been some effort to break into the European market, for example in Germany, but Mr. Brown coffee is still not commonly seen on the shelves of stores in most European countries.
In the US
The US market for iced coffee is different from Europe in that consumers are more accustomed to the drink. However, since Americans are more familiar with the concept of iced coffee, Mr. Brown has more competition from homegrown brands.
For the time being, in the US, Mr. Brown is most readily available from specialist Asian supermarkets that stock it, as well as from online sellers.
Contaminated milk scandal in China
As well as the original range of iced coffee products launched under the Mr. Brown brand, the company also ventured into the instant coffee mix market.
However, in 2008, China was hit by a scandal involving milk products that were found to contain melamine. Melamine is a toxic substance that is sometimes illegally added to food products to make them appear to have a higher protein content than they really do.
At the time, infant milk formula was found to contain this substance; many babies in China developed kidney stones and four died from the condition.
Mr. Brown had been sourcing milk products from the company in mainland China and subsequently issued a recall for several instant coffee products that had been made with the contaminated milk.
At the same time, the authorities in the US issued a warning to consumers not to use seven Mr. Brown tea and coffee products that were at risk of contamination. No cases of ill health due to consumption of these products were ever recorded in the US.
Following this scandal, Mr. Brown coffee stopped sourcing milk products from mainland China and instead switched to a supplier in New Zealand. Following the 2008 recall of products and the switch to a new supplier, Mr. Brown products are now deemed completely safe to drink.
Mr. Brown iced coffee products And Taste
Mr. Brown currently has a range of products, including the following canned iced coffees:
Check out this video of a tasting session with four of these Mr. Brown Coffee flavors.
A refreshing respite from the heat
We hope that you now more informed about this iconic Taiwanese brand than before. If you ever go to Taiwan, you are sure to see it stocked in the stores over there. Why not give it a try?
Or perhaps you might be in Thailand or Vietnam and suffering from the overbearing heat of the hot season. Just find a convenience store and look for a Mr. Brown Coffee; in that kind of climate, it really is just what you need!
And of course, if you ever see a Mr. Brown in your local convenience store, don’t miss the chance to try it out too!
Have you ever found Mr. Brown iced coffees in your local store or Asian supermarket? Or perhaps you saw it on a trip to Taiwan or other countries in Asia. Did you try it? Which was your favorite flavor?
If you have any comments about Mr. Brown Coffee or other brands of iced coffee, please leave us a message – and if you enjoyed our article, please don’t forget to share!