29 July 2016 11:28:25 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

How Kalimark’s Bovonto made a mark

How does a family-run brand have such a great market share in Tamil Nadu?

The name Bovonto immediately induces a feeling of nostalgia and a longing for the good old days for movie goers in Tamil Nadu when you did not have to step out of the theatre for snacks or cold drinks, for during the interval, boys or men carrying boxes with six to eight bottles would walk around calling out ‘Kalimark’ or ‘Colour’, and it was almost tradition to slake your thirst with the cold drink. It was part of the movie experience.

Kalimark’s Bovonto is one of Tamil Nadu’s most iconic brands. It is a grape flavoured, slightly fizzy, but soothing, soft drink. It is the most popular product of Kali Aerated Water Works, the company that manufactures products under the Kalimark brand, and has a loyal following among South Indians. Once you drink Bovonto, no other drink will do for you, say enthusiasts, reinforcing the ‘unique taste’ tagline. Others will say that it is the only drink that can settle an upset stomach!

The company was founded by the husband-wife duo of PVSK Palaniappa Nadar and P Unnamalai Ammal in 1916 in Virudhunagar. Palaniappa Nadar’s father, Kaliappa Nadar was an exporter of coffee and cardamom, but Palaniappa was not interested in joining his father’s business. Having noticed Spencer’s cold drinks being sold on trains, he decided to enter the soda business himself and named his product after his father.

Small beginnings

With the help of his wife, he started production of ‘goli soda’ (a soda bottle with a coloured marble in the neck serving as a stopper) at his house, with a hand-operated machine that churned out three bottles of soda a day. The drink gained immense popularity , and as shopkeepers urged him to supply more of the same, he decided to increase production. The same year — 1916 — he shifted production to a factory at Virudhunagar. The soda’s rising popularity saw new units open once every four years at Madurai, Tirunelveli, Tiruchirappalli, Kumbakonam, Chennai and Karaikudi. The present owners claim that the business was not affected even during the freedom struggle.

As sales increased, the founder’s children got involved in running the business. The name with which Kalimark is identified, the famous Bovonto brand, was introduced in 1959. With the passing away of the founder in 1964, the third generation also entered the business and took over the running of different units.

While it was very much a family business, in 1977, with new products having been introduced and sales rising, a decision was made to reorganise it into independent units which could use their own machinery, infrastructure and financial assets. The name ‘Kali Aerated Water Works’ was retained by all, with the place names, such as Madurai or Tiruchirappalli, mentioned in brackets. In 1993, to avoid future problems, the trade name and trademark details were worked out and the business was split eight ways (two more manufacturing units had been opened at Salem and Karur by then) among cousins.

To compete against the multinational brands, the family reunited in early 2000, pooled funds and set up a ₹15 crore manufacturing facility called Kalis Sparkling Water Private Ltd at Nilakottai in Dindigul. There are no swanky office buildings, however, and decisions on introduction of new products/ flavours are taken not by management consultants or experts, but by family members sitting down together for a brainstorming session.

Different strategy

It is interesting that despite being a regional player that depended only on word-of-mouth publicity for sales, in the mid-1990s, Kalimark withstood takeover efforts from brands like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, with their aggressive advertising and clever marketing strategies. Kalimark does not advertise much, it keeps a low online profile, and when it does advertise, it does not use celebrities.

It promotes its products mainly through wall paintings and hoardings, and backs regional tournaments. Kalimark was also the sponsor of a popular soap opera and a game show on TV. Industry watchers believe that Kalimark should concentrate on brand positioning rather than advertising, but they too agree that visibility is important, and add that Kalimark should take to social media in a big way.

There are eight manufacturing units and about 350 distributors, mostly in small cities and rural areas, in Tamil Nadu. The company believes in offering generous margins to distributors. Despite lower pricing by other brands, Kalimark has never felt the need to reduce its prices, preferring to grow slowly rather than by sacrificing profits. Unlike other brands that offer retailers credit, a façade makeover, discounts or refrigerators to stock their products, Kalimark asks for money upfront, and relies solely on the taste and consistency in quality that its products offer to ensure sales.

Other products from Kalimark include Trio (an orange-flavoured fizzy drink), Solo (lemon), Ginger and Frutang (mango). In its centenary year, it re-launched Kalimark Panneer soda as ‘Vibro’, a rose-flavoured carbonated drink.

Upping infrastructure

Kalimark has invested in new infrastructural facilities — its modern plants have the latest technology and equipment — and improved existing ones. Due to hygiene issues, the traditional glass bottles have made way for PET bottles.

Plans are afoot to set up a ₹150-crore manufacturing unit at Sri City in Andhra Pradesh and start operations there in April 2017. Further expansion plans cover Karnataka and Kerala. Kalimark also plans to target the youth with new flavours and dispensing machines at college campuses, hotels, clubs, IT companies & shopping complexes. Furthermore, ready-to-eat snack foods may hit the stores in 2018.

Today, Bovonto, which has a 14 per cent market share of the cold drinks market in Tamil Nadu, accounts for almost 95 per cent of the firm’s total ₹160-crore turnover. Kalimark says it aims to touch ₹1,000 crores in sales by 2020.

The company’s magnanimous gesture during the devastating floods in Chennai in November 2015 should be noted: even though it does not manufacture or distribute mineral water, it provided bottled mineral water, distributed specially for the Chennai flood victims, free of cost.