By Sonali Siriwardena
For some people, there's still nothing like a good old Elephant Orange Barley bottle to quench their thirst on a hot afternoon. The local 'Aliya Beema' brand still maintains a loyal following.
Established in 1866, the Elephant House soft drink range today has something to offer everyone and enliven every moment.
Whether it is its distinct raspberry flavoured Elephant Necto or Orange Barley to strike a more nostalgic note, Ceylon Cold Stores Ltd caters to a diversified market. Ginger Beer and Soda are the oldest in the range - over 100 years - followed by Orange Barley, more than 75 years old.
But the battle to survive the onslaught of competition posed by big-pocketed multinational companies has not been an easy one for this age-old local brand.
"The Elephant House brand name has always been associated with trusted quality and value for money, and we have maintained that trust and loyalty among our consumers," asserts Billy Walpola, its Director of Marketing.
Walpola, who has been with the company for 22 years, says that it was initially known as the Colombo Ice Company with its original business being the manufacture of ice. In time, the firm became a fixture on Glennie Street, Slave Island and its popular name 'Ice Kompaniya' was borrowed to identify the other road it borders, 'Kompannaveediya'.
In 1941 the company was renamed the Ceylon Cold Stores Ltd. Mallory Wijesinghe became its first Ceylonese chairman in 1964.
The company then went through a transition period in the 1980s, which resulted in it being taken over by John Keells in 1991.
By that time competition had set in with the liberalisation of trade in 1977 and multinationals like Coca Cola entered the market.
"In the good old days we had a monopoly in the market but what liberalisation did was to help the local brands become more competitive," says Director Laksiri Wickramage.
"When you have competition, you become smarter because you realise you have to be one step ahead if you want to survive. Multinationals carry out mass scale advertising and are not concerned about short-term profits."
"Also with the advent of television in the country, the whole media scenario changed and products like Coca Cola began using advertising material from the global setting, which had a huge bearing on the average consumer," Wickramage said. "This had a very heavy toll on our products."
But the take-over by the John Keells conglomerate meant Elephant House got the required support to meet the competition "head-on" and became more market oriented, Wickramage said.
Over the years, the company has become synonymous with its soft drinks. Aerated water was included in the company's production by a German engineer, Arthur Von Possner, who was the firm's manager at the time.
It was his brainwave to stamp the distinctive "Elephant" trademark on the bottles. "In the old days we had a very diversified product range including soft drinks, ice cream, milk, ice, jam, cordials, sauces, pickles, colouring essences and bakery items," Walpola said. "But now we have temporarily shed certain items and narrowed our concentration to the core areas of our business which are soft drinks and ice cream."
The company has a range of cold meats serving a niche market because demand among consumers is for pre-cooked meats.
Ceylon Cold Stores has a 49 percent and 77 percent market share in soft drinks and ice cream, respectively, Walpola said. One reason they have been able to hold their ground despite competition is because their employees are instilled with a spirit that could resist the multinationals.
"Our workforce consists of around 2,000 employees mainly concentrated at our soft drink, ice cream and carbon dioxide plant in Kaduwela, Ranala, and the cold meats plant housed at Colombo," Walpola said. Wickramage adds that the strategy of brand positioning played a key role in their success.
"This means we tried to create a permanent address for our products in the consumer's mind," he explained.
A brand which is not "positioned" would mean different things to different people, he said. However, acquiring a distinct position in the mind of the consumer gives the product a permanent status.
In 1992, following the take-over by John Keells, which remains the main shareholder with a 54 percent stake in the company, Ceylon Cold Stores separated its brands to target different sections in the market.
"For example, we intuitively decided to market Necto to cater to children, Lemonade to be associated with sports and Cream Soda for music," Wickramage said. Whereas Orange Crush was marketed as a drink for young lovers while Soda took on a more sensuous tone. "What we did was to totally segment our products and attack our competitors from different angles," Wickramage said. "We have been successful in winning back the market in this manner." Adds Walpola: "The commitment of our staff has been enormous and this collective effort is what has made the Elephant brand name regain its position in the changing market."
And so Elephant House remains a truly Sri Lankan brand, and a confidence index for the strength of indigenous brands in the country.