Erisco, his Najiko tomato and the limits of “IME AHIA” branding


By Ikem Okuhu

Ime ahia, the Igbo expression that loosely means, “inside the market” but carries a meaning deeper than appears on the surface, is where the old aphorism of “might is right” can be found in its manifest full swing.  Ime ahia is where everything happens, and the more I listen in on the rather unfortunate and seemingly endless conversations around the Erisco tomatoes line of products, particularly on social media, the more I suspect that their promoters may be trying to apply the tools of marketplace merchandising to the wider world of branding.

I have read all sorts of arguments ranging from the emotional, the rational to the ultimately bizarre on this matter, and as days go by, I get more convinced that this ime ahia strategy is gaining traction even in its wrong and wrongful applications on a matter that should have been quietly settled long ago.

I guess the herd mentality and hound culture that that characterize the social media has helped in fuelling this ime ahia syndrome: it reinforced what I suspect is the belief of the promoters of Erisco that the louder you scream, the more bullish you appear and behave (even if you do not overtly mean any harm), the more customers footfalls you draw to your shop.

Social media is powerful. As a player in the Nigerian marketing communications environment, I have used the space for a number of personal projects as well as to push the narrative of some of my clients. Even here, the ime ahia strategy is selectively, not universally, applied. Social media can be used to hound and bully people into silence. With battalions of influencers sampling their wares and weaponry and ready to unleash them against the perceived enemies of those who hired them, the virtual world is not a bloodied battlefield of proxy wars in which those killing and shooting might not even have the faintest idea of why they are at war. So long as they attract likes, generate comments and conjure the retweets necessary to appear to be the dominant voices, the battle is justified.

So social media has become captive of the ime ahia mentality; seemingly random people latch onto issues and take ownership even when they have never had anything to do with the issue other than having been paid to create the illusion of mass belief.

But let me drill deeper into this concept of ime ahia branding so that in the end, we will appreciate the ignorance that has been propelling Chief Eric Umeofia and his Erisco company into the desperate, and I daresay, fruitless salvage missions they have been on since the controversial review of one of their products by one Chioma Egodi.

If Erisco was a well-structured business with a proper board of directors, what has happened so far about the company would have been enough to fire the entire management team. This company has been investing time and resources in ramping up social media conversations, but has achieved very little in tilting the sentiment score to positive.

In the typical Nigerian marketplace, whether you are selling spare parts in Nnewi, timbre in Ogbomosho, fish in Bomadi or fish in Maiduguri, the culture of winning the market share battle means other than nice and civil is prevalent. traders scream, drag, and often make advances to potential customers with the sort of impunity that cares little about value propositions. Every customer is seen as the next snack that has to be consumed by the quickest person by wit, hook and crook.

In the marketplace, the customer rarely has rights, and that is mostly because, unlike what obtains in the brand world, there is no love affair between him and the brand; the seller owns his wares and only shares moments of transaction with his customer before moving to the next. The language, “you dey spoil my market for me” captures this philosophy of the seller believing the customer should have no point of view about what he or she buys. The seller owns everything and merely exchanges money with buyers; the extended utility of enduring relationships is often missing.

In the marketplace, everything is in a perpetual flux. Customers flow past like a stream and while efforts at retention exists, it is usually the exception and not the rule. In the typical store, the owner samples an assortment of brands and will willingly give you a thousand reasons why you should take a particular brand, if he suspects you have a preference for it. Pick two competing brands and ask which one you should go with and this so called knowledgeable person would become ambivalent, playing mind games with you to know where your preference tilts.

The marketplace thrives on organised disorder and chaos. The more confused the buyers are, the easier for the seller to make abnormal profits. Any customer that is seen to be disrupting this disorderliness is treated as a spoiler.

In many marketplaces, even the seller is not properly defined. Hundreds of people loiter in the place pretending to stock inventories when all they possess are invoice booklets, wandering feet, and sweet tongues. They drag you to a store and right in your presence, swap places with the owner and sell to you at a margin. There is nothing wrong with this, not until you discover you bought a knockoff and return to the store for replacement. Then you’d discover that the person who posed as the seller was an imposter, and when you query the situation, you are referred to your invoice on which you’d discover that the person who “sold” the stuff to you is a different entity entirely.

Back to Chief Umeofia and Mrs. Egodi, I had never heard of Nagiko Tomato Mix, and I did not read the offending review by the lady in the middle of the entire drama until shortly after she was arrested by the police following a petition by the Erisco chief. From a few people making jokes out of the matter, the issue became a full-blown battle as people took sides, depending on either their orientation or rewards spurring them to action. Things grew from bad to worse and Chief Umeofia possibly remembered the days when Erisco hadn’t metamorphosed into a food brand and was the word for fire extinguishers and decided to quench the raging inferno himself.

One could see the ime ahia mentality the day he appeared on Boason Omofaye’s programme on Arise Television. Listening to him, you would get the feeling it was a boxer taking up his next bout with a particularly annoying contender. Adorning his now-famous Ankara suit, he brooked no conciliation and instead bragged about his friendship with the “IGP” and how he would not allow someone to destroy what he had spent the past decades building.

It was at this point that I did not know whether to pity or ridicule this man. I started hearing about Erisco many years ago when the person behind it was selling fire extinguishers and had deployed a lot of electronic media advertising to differentiate. Even when I started hearing of Erisco Foods, I got a bit confused because I did not know Erisco was also a food company. Having laboured to build his company over four decades, the ime ahia orientation that supported the man’s survival as a trader in Sokoto until he became a billionaire was still driving his approach to a business that, from the look of things, he intends to transform into an enduring brand.

But brand building is incongruous with the typical ime ahia behaviour, and that was why the cries by the chief about the destruction of something he had built for over 40 years was a bit of a turn-off.

Someone should have told him that at the level he is operating at present, the ownership of his brand should have transcended him to include his customers. But chief still thinks he owns all that he manufactures, even when it is actually the customers that own them.

Many people use the word, “brand” quite loosely to include everything on a shop shelf that has a name, a consistent house colour, and a logo. But this is most untrue. What makes a brand what it is, the sum of the feelings customers have about it. Contrary to what most companies believe, they don’t actually own their brand. As Soon Yu wrote in, “It’s not the sum of their logo, colors, fonts and mission statement. Instead, each brand is something that lives in the minds of its audience. And each individual has a different interpretation of the brand based on his or her experiences and what he or she has heard other people say.”

What this means is that it was a marketing aberration for Chief Umeofia to be thrashing about like a baby deprived of his favourite toy. The toy, in this case, the Najiko tomato mix has been sent out into the public space where it either attracts more customers by a proper activation of the marketing mix, or it fails, also based on some factors that are still dependent on how well mixed the engagement with the market is.

There have been superfluous prescriptions on what Chief Umeofia should have done to mitigate the damage, but it seems he is open to listening to everything except the voice of commonsense. I recall that before this matter became full-blown crisis, I prescribed engagement with the reviewer. I also remember many people advising that he stopped going ahead on the path of legal prosecution. But Chief Umeofia feels so entitled that he is willing to do anything to defend his business, even if what would be achieved in the end might be a pyrrhic victory.

Nagiko tomato paste has been battered and bruised in the market and the people responsible for this are the owners of the brand and the park of influencers hired to moderate the conversation. I guess the impression they give the chief is that the more they are in the news, the deeper the brand penetrates. But this is most untrue of consumable brands and products. While notoriety might sell celebrities, I have never seen any brand that was built with notoriety and a perception that it bullies its customers.

If Erisco was a well-structured business with a proper board of directors, what has happened so far about the company would have been enough to fire the entire management team. This company has been investing time and resources in ramping up social media conversations, but has achieved very little in tilting the sentiment score to positive.

This is where a board intervenes in a business; to ask questions about costs and outcomes; to order a perception audit to determine if what is happening is working and to conduct a survey to measure any successes (if any) by way of footfalls.

The cost elements are three folds and include financial cost (amount spent for social media campaigns and the one being lavished on lawyers); reputational cost (how do we begin to put a value to a company or an individual’s dented reputation?) and of course the opportunity cost (Chief Umeofia should have used the time he has spent to fight this battle on more productive enterprises, just as the funds being deployed to fight this battle are scarce resources that, as elementary economics teaches, has alternative uses.

But Chief Umeofia is his own board and not answerable to anybody. He may be dipping his hands in personal savings to fund this war that he has declared, a needless war that could have been avoided and possibly turned to beneficial outcomes for the product and the company had it been handled differently.

What is at stake is the immediate and long-term reputation of the brand and to a large extent, even its owner. The perception of most people in all the conversations I have monitored on this matter is that Chief Umeofia and the Erisco/Nagiko brands (I have been reluctant to use this word) are aggressive and oppressive, and with this, there is a reinforcement of the perception created by the Chioma the reviewer. Even if the court decides in his favour today or tomorrow, this impression has been registered and the public will have reached its verdict on this David-and-Goliath-like battle.

The very sad thing about this sort of reputation battle is that even if one gets justice in the courts, nothing ever cleanses the stigma of an oppressor that would linger afterwards with the public. In other words, Erisco might win the battle but lose the war In this case, the war should be more important than the battle. The matter is even made to appear more deliberately targeted because since the case became everyone’s favourite topic on social media, there have been scores of other adverse reviews, but neither Erisco nor its owner has made any effort to hound and arrest those behind them.

It’s so much water under the bridge already, but I believe the best path to take is to halt the advance now, allow time to cover the wound, even if it won’t heal, and hope that the buying public will forget.

Ikem Okuhu is a journalist, a Public Relations professional, brand strategist and teacher. With a career that traversed Print Media, Oil & Gas, Banking and entrepreneurship, Ikem is the author of wave-making book; PITCH: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths, a dispassionate exposition of the dos and don’ts of successful engagement in the marketplace, especially the Nigerian marketplace. He is the founder/publisher of BRANDish, Nigeria’s first nationally circulating Brands and Marketing magazine. He has also handled the PR and reputation management consultancies for a number of brands, businesses and public figures.

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