14 August 2013

The Elephant Brand: A lifetime choice

We all have ‘earliest memories’.  Among what I remember of ‘early days’ is my Montessori teacher, first days in school, my older brother Arjuna preparing to go as a Berec Battery at the fancy dress parade of the sports meet when he was in Grade One and my classmate Gihan Wijeratne being adjudged the winner of the fancy dress parade (he dressed up as a bride) the following year.  I remember the careless brush of the hand that swept my friend Samitha Samaraweera’s bittara mama (a beautifully colored and decorated egg shell - probably at Easter) off his desk, his anger and tears, and my helplessness.  I remember the best yoghurt I’ve ever had, just 30 cents, from the Milk Board.  And I remember aliya beema.
Way back in 1971, my parents, both government servants, had decided to order a case of Elephant House soft drink bottles every month.  The sales person would come with a form and they would write in the number of bottles from each brand.  We got Lanka Lime, Necto, Orange Barley, Cream Soda, Lemonade and Ginger Beer. Each morning our mother would fill our drink bottles.  We grew up with Elephant House drinks. 

Then there was Fountain Café, which served hot dogs (at what price I do not know for I did not have to pay) like I’ve never had since.  Today, years after giving up meat, fish and egg, I still remember the flavor of that incredible sauce, the full and rich sausage and the bun.  Those were rare treats, as were ‘Elephant House Family Blocks’, ice cream sold in cardboard cartons.  The drinks, however, were an every-school-day thing for us.

In the late seventies or eighties, I remember, a sudden influx of ‘crush’ drinks from Elephant House: Orange, Lime and Lemon.  Lime and Lemon were taken off the market (and we don’t see Lanka Lime any more either), but Orange Crush remained.  Speaking strictly for myself, my adolescent years were ‘crushed’, so to speak.  I was introduced to Lime and Lemon, but with a lunu ketaya (piece of hard salt) on the lip.  Better than any cola, then or now. 
Today, there are other soft drinks in the market, along with various milk-based drinks.  These compete with one another in newspapers, over the air waves and on television screens.  That’s the story of these free-market times of course.  In all this, the notion of ‘trusted brand’, which is a product of longevity and quality, gives one and edge over the other. 

Longevity is an indicator of quality.  The aliya beema story begins in 1866 when the Colombo Ice Company was formed and ice production began with an initial capital of 1,600 pounds, 2 steam engines and just 22 employees.  This was in Glenie Street.  Folk around the area called it ‘Ice Kompaniya’ and that is how ‘Slave Island’ came to be known, in ‘Sinhala’ as ‘Kompagngna Veediya’.  The manager, a German Engineer by the name of Arthur Van Possner was the one who introduced the elephant trade mark.  The company was acquired by Tom Walker and re-named New Colombo Ice Company Limited in May 1894.  Forty years later, this company bought the Ceylon Ice and Cold Storage Company which pioneered the import of frozen foods to Ceylon. The name was changed to Ceylon Cold Stores in 1941. The diversification included the introduction of fresh milk in 1932 and ice cream production in bulk from in 1935. 
The changing of hands continued.  In 1991 John Keells Holdings took over.  A century and a half is a long time.  In that time, there were two world wars, many constitutional amendments, the end of colonial rule, power changing hands from one set of local elites to another, two bloody insurrections and a full blown war that lasted thirty years, not to mention economic ups and downs, the rubber boom during the Korean War, the closed-economy experiment in the early eighties, the ‘let-the-robber-barons-come’ of J.R. Jayewardena, the open-economy-with-a-human-face of Chandrika Kumaratunga and ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ with all its pluses and minuses.  There were good times and bad times.  What began with ice, moved to aerated water, milk, ice cream and other frozen desserts, and frozen foods.  Economic liberalization naturally made for intense competition, enhanced the need to improve quality and to plan and execute continuous diversification, as well as brand enhancement and re-positioning. 

The ice cream range was broadened in terms of flavor as well as premium products.  The soft drinks, hit by a cola-culture, had to be re-branded.  That’s how Ginger Beer became ‘EGB’ in 1995.  There were award-winning advertising campaigns associated with EGB and Cream Soda (Yauvanaye popiyana chamathkaaraya), and a ‘throw-back to the past’ television commercial for Orange Barley.  Retail shops got shop signs decorated with the Necto label.  Elephant House gave us Apple Soda and, more recently, the better cola drink, Kik Cola (Sri Lankan to the last drop).  The label changes were more frequent than the changes in bottle shape.     
Over the years, Elephant House has withstood the challenge of cola drinks.  The re-branding has been questioned.  Whatever the label, whatever the packaging in terms of size and shape, ‘elephant’ is the recognized identifier.  Even today, the vast majority of consumers won’t ask for ‘Elephant House beema’.  The request is ‘Aliya beema thiyenavada?’ (Do you have elephant-drinks?). 

There’s no better drink than water.  If you want the tip of the tongue to be titillated, then there’s nothing to beat King Coconut (thambili).  There are issues about sugar drinks. Serious health issues.  Fruit drinks too.  Anything in excess is unhealthy, especially processed foods and beverages.  But as they say in the commercials (forgetting the ‘buddy size’) aliya beeme is for sharing.  And anyway, if you want a bit of fizz to go with a thirst-quencher, then it is the elephant brand that works best.  For most of us.  There’s something ‘household’ about the name.  In my case, literally and metaphorically. 


Nandinie wickramatilleke said...

This was our era, Good old days!! I live in Canada with all new comforts but life is not enjoyable as those old hard days!!I always miss that life!

Jack Point said...

It defined an era. A friend once told me that he had complained to JKH when they closed Fountain Cafe-he claimed that they had destroyed his childhood.