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Erisco, his Najiko tomato and the limits of “Ime Ahia” branding

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.

  • Okey Ukazu

    Men you are good

    March 15, 2024 at 9:55 pm Reply
  • Enobong Amiang

    You have clearly spoken my mind. If I had access to Erisco, I would have warned him of the danger of using his approach to destroy the works of his hand. This matter was a very small matter that could have been done and dusted long ago without brining down the roof. I have no problem with the Chioma reviewer but with Erisco because holds both the yam and the knife. But unfortunately, he is about to cut himself with the knife. Everything is not about financial muscle, the law, the police etc. He is not well advised on this. However, he can stop this thing at this level and save his business. Even if the girl is sent to jail, it will not help him or his business. He is doing more damage to his business than the girl’s review. I hope he gets to read this and do a rethink. The ball is in his court and the buck stops on his table.

    March 16, 2024 at 5:06 am Reply
    • Anthonia Chioma

      I used to use their products because I never knew about that lady’s review.
      I got to know about the review when Erisco arrested the lady and since then, I stopped using their products.
      All they should have done was to address the lady to know the particular time she bought it, where and then looked for the batch done within that period of time.
      Maybe, there was an issue with that particular batch which prompted her negative review.

      March 17, 2024 at 10:15 am Reply
  • Onabajo adeleke

    I totally agree with your master piece on the erisco saga and this reminds me of the indomie killer nodules that happened about two decades ago in Nigeria when late Prof Dora was Nafdac DG. Indomie never sue their complainants to court nor intimidate them with police rather they stopped Indomie sales for two years and went on massive free sampling to every Nigerian children to convinced all and sundry that Indomie is not only safe to eat but very nutritional.they ensured that every child then had access to a free pack of Indomie nodules the results of that wise reaction to a dangerous complaint of death from Indomie consumptions is what we are seeing today in what Indomie has become. The number one selling product second to none.

    March 16, 2024 at 6:09 am Reply
  • Uche Okafor

    In my opinion, instead of aggravating the matter by involving the police and going to court, the company should have invited the lady for a special tour of their facility and show her how the product is made. Make her an ambassador for the brand and use her visit to show other consumers and social media users the credibility of the brand.

    March 16, 2024 at 6:41 am Reply
    • Okeke Tochukwu

      By spoiling people’s hard earned plan of years

      March 17, 2024 at 8:37 am Reply
    • Abiodun Saliu

      You know pride go before destruction
      Never mind them they start a war they can not win
      Shame on them

      March 17, 2024 at 5:06 pm Reply
  • Emeka Onuoha

    On the flip side would have been wiser for the lady to have sent her reviews privately to the company through their email address or Social media platforms? This is a sole proprietorship as such the whole episode reeks of ego from both sides; I guess it will be a tall order reining in chief umeofia’s emotions. May wisdom direct his actions and this serves as warning to those who want to clout-chase

    March 16, 2024 at 7:04 am Reply
    • utietiang undie

      He can still make up for the lost time and resources. Make friends with the lady, tell the world you accepted her review and made adjustment,make her your product ambassador, of the new products and win the public to the product. For now I have nothing to do with the company or it’s products.

      March 17, 2024 at 7:54 am Reply
    • Tony Edd

      Sent her review privately?
      That is not a review. Reviews are opinions given by customers to the public based on their experience or some other person’s experience with the product.
      We all give reviews everyday, everytime you talk about a product, service or an experience.
      It doesn’t matter if it is a sole proprietorship. You give reviews on your mechanic, your cleaner, your driver, people you buy domestic items from, everyday.
      She did nothing wrong.
      Erisco should have handled the matter simply.
      The public review would have benefitted his company.
      He should fire all of his marketing staff and PR staff.

      March 17, 2024 at 2:55 pm Reply
  • Okoyomoh Maria

    Bullying the reviewer has totally turned me off their products because I am just reminded of”hey! that oppressor” each time I see the tomatoes brand on the shelf in the market. You just said it all, this has being handled poorly by Erisco owner. Chief you can still do the right thing listen to this professional advice from this article writer please.

    March 17, 2024 at 4:30 am Reply
    • Onyemaechi Khama

      You are right. I was telling my sister in law about that particular tomato paste two days before Mrs Chioma’s review and I was like, “see what I was complaining about, another person noticed as well.”

      March 17, 2024 at 5:34 pm Reply
  • Promise Nnebedum

    If a train captain stops and throw stones at every barking dog he can not reach his destination, Eric Umeofia messed up an opportunity to promote his brand because his ego. But is to late, withdraw the petition against Chioma and make her Erisco tomatoes Ambassador, boom!!! Turn this into an advantage to advertise your product and brand.

    March 17, 2024 at 7:23 am Reply
  • Promise Nnebedum

    “If a train captain stops and throw stones at every barking dog he can not reach his destination” chief Eric Umeofia messed up an opportunity to promote his brand because of his ego. But is not to late, withdraw the petition against Chioma and make her Erisco tomatoes brand Ambassador, boom!!! Turn this into an advantage to advertise your product and brand.

    March 17, 2024 at 7:27 am Reply
  • Asogwa Fidelis

    I think the fact that the company is not a structured corporate had given the owner little headroom in confronting this incident. He is simply treating the matter like a typical trader.

    March 17, 2024 at 12:57 pm Reply
  • Obianuju

    Quite an interesting read, the Erisco food saga is one crisis that rocked the Local brand space in 2023. But some of the adjectives use to qualify Erisco in this article didn’t seem objective, it sounds like you have a personal brawl with him. Well this isnt an objective article, it is an expository one and I love it.

    March 17, 2024 at 1:39 pm Reply
  • Nzube

    Wow!!! This piece right here is up there! Thank you sir for this analysis.

    March 17, 2024 at 3:08 pm Reply
  • Tony Edd

    As unlikely as this sounds, if he drops the case and issues an apology to the reviewer and the public, this would help to reinforce a positive impression in the public eyes.
    He could salvage and benefit hugely from this debacle.

    March 17, 2024 at 3:10 pm Reply
  • Onyemaechi Khama

    You’ve written well brother.

    However, I must stated that Mr Eric is trying to protect his reputation but in a wrong way. Yes, according to the reviewer, she presented two other products choices that seems to be better than that of Erisco’s product which made Mr Eric Umeofia uncomfortable thinking that someone hired Mrs Chioma to come talk down on his hard work of over four decades. But, he is doing this in a wrong way. If I’m to advise the Erisco chief, I would like to tell him to use this opportunity to claim the market by calling Mrs Chioma and use her as an ambassador for that particular brand instead of pushing on with the case that might end up destroying his hard work.

    March 17, 2024 at 5:31 pm Reply

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