An innocuous Facebook post sparks off the biggest consumer-manufacturer feud in years. In this epic struggle, Nigeria’s king of Tomato paste, Chief Eric Umeali sees massive conspiracies against his tomato empire when a certain Chioma Egodi does a review against one of his darling brands. Without hesitation, he goes for the jugular by having her arrested and detained by the police high command. It is clear that he wants to set an example, either to exact a pound of flesh for a tortured history or to scapegoat her for the future. Or maybe he really believes she is an agent of his company’s enemies. Whatever the motivation, the fury, the energy and the time that has been committed to prosecuting this lone accused is akin to the proverbial tale where one kills an ant with a sledgehammer. Brands must be protected; markets must be closely guarded but the greatest asset of a marketer or manufacturer of any goods is the consumer. Getting on the wrong side of the consumer can prove disastrous in a market filled with cheap maybe even substandard competing imports. The earlier the chief begins the process of reconciling his company and brands with the mass of angry consumers the better.
The first time the name Erisco burst into our consciousness was in the first half of the 2000s when the then innovative product Erisco Fire Bumpet became a household name in Nigeria. The product was launched with a massive advertising campaign that swept us off our feet. Within a short space of time, almost everyone got to know about the product. At the time not many knew the man behind the product, but the product itself became an instant star! Years later, he ventured into full scale manufacturing and today has become the Mr. Tomato of Africa.
Since then he has been in and out of the media, a passionate advocate of made-in-Nigeria products and consistent preacher of the mandate of economic independence through local manufacturing. Since he launched his 450,000 tonnes tomato processing plant in March of 2016, he has not rested in his campaign against economic practices and policies that are inimical to the growth of local manufacturing, including importation of finished food products and none availability of forex for legitimate manufacturers.
He has a great passion for what he does and is particularly emotional about the prospects of the tomato Market. That passion came to the fore last week when he went all out to take on a Facebook commentator who posted a review of one of his tomato products, Nagito Tomato Mix. In the now controversial post, she briefly narrates how she had gone to buy the product. But on getting home and was about to use it for a pot of soup, she decided to taste it only to discover that there was, in her view, too much sugar in it.
She then asked her followers to give their opinion or comments of their own experience with the product or something to that effect. Typical of such engagements, people weighed in with all kinds of disparate views. A well-oiled corporate communications team may have seen this as a brilliant opportunity for consumer engagement for education, enlightenment and brand information dissemination.
It didn’t happen. The company took hold of a sledgehammer in its bid to smash an ant, in a manner of speaking. Let us be clear, it is understandable that having made the type of significant investment in the local economy like Erisco has done, it expects citizens to at least show some empathy to its brands and products. The absence of this can lead to the type of full throttle emotional response, we are seeing now, without the cold and dispassionate analysis that could have led to a totally different set of actions, which would have, certainly, yielded a totally different set of results.
We identify 8 wrong steps carried out by Erisco and some of the key dramatis personae in a bid to protect a product and the unintended consequences that we are now compelled to deal with. Please note that for us, the judge and jury remain the consumer assembly, our core professional ethics and the media, at least until the parties step into the law court.
Consumers are so critical because if they rule against you, you lose their patronage. If you lose the loyalty of the consumer, you lose all. So getting a temporary high over the indiscriminate and unnecessary use of power may be fun, but the speed to the ground is so sudden that you question the logic of the brief high. The media are opinion shapers. No smart business person underestimates the capacity of the media in helping to shape a business’ fortunes over time. Finally, there are time tested principles which guide professional practice in the area of reputation management of brands and companies.
“The consumer…she is your wife” -David Ogilvy
A simple reading of the original comment makes it clear that this reviewer did not initially mention that the product is bad, poisonous or a killer. We are unable to read her further comments in the comments section. The original post was focused on the fact that the product contains a lot of sugar, which in her own opinion as a consumer, is too much. Surely a consumer has a legitimate right to express this sentiment? Responding to this was the job of the PR department. They needed to go to the comment section and explain that what she bought was not for soup but a spread and that the sugar content is considered safe by the regulatory authorities. That confirmation by NAFDAC (the statement that the sugar is within safe consumption limits), which came a day ago, should have been the very first step in pacifying protesting consumers if the manufacturer did not wrongly go to town with the assumption that this was enemy action.
Hey, what exactly was the problem?
The massive investment of time and energy deployed on this matter, especially the police involvement only helped to overshadow the communication that the company needed to do. In addition to the above, Chief Eric Umeofia and his PR team had a duty, first and foremost, to explain both to the complainant and, consequently, the general public that there was a difference between the tomato paste (made for soup) and the tomato mix (for spreads) which contains sugar. Even the reviewer mixed this up and many in the comments section. The fact that the addition of sugar in the mix has regulatory approval and that it is not meant for soup yet people were mixing them up was a big communication issue.
Obviously the woman in question did not know the difference because in this country many people do not see tinned tomato as a product to be used as a spread on bread and the like. Many see tinned tomato as something you unpack and let loose in a pot of soup and that was what she was intent on doing. This was a premium opportunity to educate those of us who do not know that “hey, don’t get it twisted, there is a difference between the paste and the mix!”. Sadly, that free opening, worth its weight in gold, was thrown away in a fit of anger.
Brewing a storm in a soup pot.
Rather than strategically take advantage of this opening as in (2) above, somebody wrote a damning petition to the police. The petition speaks of criminal conspiracy, blackmail, extortion and several other serious criminal allegations. This shifted the case from what would have been a simple communication gap problem between manufacturer and consumer, and turned it into a no winner war between the consumer society and a big manufacturer seeking to intimidate one of them with the awesome powers of the state police. Thousands of consumers, who Erisco needs to consolidate its brands’ position, feel so bad about this and it will take some time to repair the damage.
Even when there is suspicion of enemy action being masqueraded as consumer protest, the manufacturer needs to proceed with utmost caution so as not to incur the anger of the consumer en masse. Their enmity is to be avoided at all costs. The brand owner must seek to isolate the offender (If the suspicion is genuine), and if indeed it is enemy action in progress, and expose it in a way that is obvious to all clear minded individuals.
Division of Labor.
While Chief Umeofia is a strong and convincing advocate of local manufacturing and the prevention of unhealthy imports that negatively impacts both the economy and the health of Nigerians, he made an error of judgement in mounting the podium to defend his brand in a matter of this nature. The company needed a less emotional person who is able to analyze and address the issues in a cold and dispassionate manner, someone who can see beyond the conspiratorial framework that has been the centerpiece of Chief Umeofia’s aggressive response strategy. The big lesson here for business owners is the need to adhere to basic rules of division of labor in the pursuit of corporate excellence. The PR man should speak for the organization after articulating an agreed position in-house. There must be a reason why somebody was employed to do that job.
Win the Consumer even if you lose the war.
The AriseTV Right of Reply granted to the Erisco helmsman was a wasted opportunity for reasons related to 4 above. He was unable to establish the veracity of his claims with facts. He was unable to prove the case against the so called conspirators in a convincing manner. He displayed an apology letter which contained details of what constituted confidential information on national TV. The objective of sharing the apology letter was not clear since the letter was written by a nursing mother who had been detained for days, flown from Lagos to Abuja on charges that were not clear to her and was pressed to just return home. And to prove that the apology was not heartfelt, she refused to publish it as soon as she breathed the air of freedom. It didn’t help that her freedom was secured by another government agency, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), led by Babatunde Irukera. FCCPC happens to be the nation’s authority on consumer affairs and obviously gave some confidence to the “accused”. By the time he was celebrating the apology letter on air, Lawyer Inibehe Effiong was preparing a detailed rebuttal to all his key points. That came the very next day. That TV program was another wasted opportunity. No effort was made to win the consumer. His target was the authorities, to show the sacrifices he has been making and to establish how the system has been unfair to him. He adopted a victim mentality but kept talking in the billions. A clear contradiction that challenged his credibility.
I have read the profile of Chioma Egodi. I have also read quite a bit about her and her husband. While they look like well to do city folks, they certainly don’t look like a family that can shell out a judgement suit of anything close to any billions. What exactly would be the point of pursuing a 5 billion naira defamation case against either a fake or original customer who went AWOL? Who has been defamed? How does the claim that a product contains sugar become a defamation? Is sugar poisonous? At best, you can make it clear that the reviewer does not know enough about the product category and needs more information. To the discerning, the 5 billion naira lawsuit looks like a publicity stunt. If they go to court with such a claim against a young lady without an established business, many people may find it difficult to take them serious.
A clear lack of focus.
The chief endlessly pivoted from the matter at hand, which brought him to the studio, to macro- economic matters. He grumbled endlessly about the refusal of the CBN to grant him forex and that he has been sourcing his own forex from his foreign operations. He went on about the refusal of government organs to check massive importation of tomato products, something that is inimical to the growth of local manufacturing. He complained bitterly about the health costs of imported food products. While these matters have weight, his endlessly forcing them into the conversation over his action against a product reviewer, which the FCCPC has labelled “illegal arrest” in a missive to the IG, gave the irresistible impression that he was making an effort to detract from the main subject matter while attracting pity from listeners.
If the lawyer to Chioma Egodi sticks to the threat to proceed to court, Erisco organization will have to prove the very implicating claim that “Chioma (Egodi) led a syndicate that attempted to extort money from it”, among other claims that compelled Olumuyiwa Adejobi, police spokesman, to assert that “It’s not a civil case, it’s a criminal offence”. According to him, Chioma is liable to being prosecuted over her actions, warning that the cybercrime prohibition act of 2015 remains a law in Nigeria. According to him anyone found to be involved in dishing out false allegations, cyber bullying, cyber stalking, misinformation, disinformation…would have to face the law. In its effort to get the police to take action against a perceived hostile customer, a pile of very criminal allegations was made in writing obviously without realizing that this could potentially become a tomato-gate. Now that it has happened, it looks like the courts, not the police would be adjudicating. This promises a long yield of negative consumer related publicity for the company if a bitter court feud goes on over an indeterminate period.
Despite occasional outbursts like this, what is missing in Nigeria is a robust consumer movement capable of challenging big business and big brands. What Erisco has done is characteristic of many Nigerian organizations when faced with consumer angst. Many lack the empathy and respect that the consumer deserves. They resort to sometimes boycotting media houses who present the consumer point of view. This held for some time and served to virtually kill consumer resistance since all the big companies with advertising budgets had to do was threaten media houses with an advertising boycott. Not many newspapers or TV stations are bold enough to take the heat.
The rise of social media with its cousin citizen journalism has changed all that. So a Chioma Egodi doesn’t require the concurrence of an editor who is under pressure to achieve financial goals for his organization to publish her views. What an Erisco organization missed in all this is the positive impact of consumer feedback which is a feeder for product enlightenment, product improvement and product innovation.
Sometimes a well-developed consumer feedback pipeline can help an organization to better understand the needs of its consumers and find out what the consumer really wants. In the current case, it is clear that there is a total mix up in the perception of Erisco’s tomato paste products. Another unintended consequence of this action by Erisco is that it has the tendency to frighten other consumers to silence.
Babatunde Irukera. The smooth talking vice-chairman/CEO of the FCCPC has used this case to establish the potency and relevance of the pro-consumer agency. And they did it simply by being pro-active even without waiting to be contacted. Having established an efficient monitoring network, the organization is able to respond swiftly to the extent of securing the release of a beleaguered consumer in line with its mandate, while also seeking the point of view of the manufacturer. The position of the FCCPC is so well articulated in the commission’s letter to the IG:
“All available information, including representation by Erisco do not support the allegation or elements of criminal defamation. If Ms. Egodi’s statements turn out to be false, outrageous, intentional without bases, and damaging, it is not inconceivable that after judicial adjudication in a civil case, she could be liable to Erisco. The process and threshold to establish that is significant and complex. Our laws and global practice protect consumers in fair speech to provide reviews and feedback regarding products. Indeed, that feedback mechanism is one of the strongest components of any consumer rights enforcement framework, and is fiercely protected by institutions, including the courts.”
Mr Irukera has handled this quite well and his articulation of the issues and proactive responses have been very well received by the public and the media.
Ag. Inspector General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun.
Although he is not a direct participant in the ongoing drama, yet his imprint looms large as the original petition by Erisco was addressed to him directly. The police took the petition at face value and immediately treated the reviewer like a crime suspect to the extent of detaining her in Lagos and Abuja. The public has not taken too kindly to this. Many find it difficult to understand why that “offence” should receive such a swift and severe sanction even when basic facts were yet to be established. Chioma is said to be a nursing mother, and her lawyer insists that if there was nothing out of the ordinary going on, after her statement had been taken in Lagos, she should have been allowed to return home. That didn’t happen and this has led to public outcry in an unprecedented manner. Obviously this has not turned out very well for the new IG that many see as a leader capable of bringing the good times to relations between the police and the Nigerian public.
Thumbs down sir.
Chioma Egodi. It cannot be wrong to buy a product, find it unsatisfactory and then write about it. But as they say in law, he who goes to equity must go with clean hands. The problem with clean or dirty hands is that not everyone can see them. So assumptions can be made about motive. In this case, even when we are personally convinced, given all the facts at our proposal, that this was an innocent review, her management of her role as a moderator of the ensuing conversation on her page may have given the impression that she had a personal bias against the company. It is also clear that she did not do a good job of the review she did in mixing up a tomato mix with a tomato paste. A simple reading of the label should have told her that she bought the wrong product and the review may not have been necessary. The company’s PR people claim they tagged her in their press statement. This, in our view should ordinarily prompt a comment as a mark of goodwill. Brand owners are justified to be agitated about anything that could damage the reputation of their huge investment. Does she deserve some engagement and conversation? Yes. Does she deserve the humiliation of harassment and arrest? Definitely not.
Chioma gets a thumbs down.
Chief Eric Umeofia. Chief Umeofia is passionate, a rugged fighter and a very successful manufacturer and businessman. He is a patriotic Nigerian and yes, Nigeria needs people like this. But it is time he slows down and let his dogs bark for him. In our view he ought not to have gone to the TV stations. He should have sent his PR guns there. He didn’t need to be the one responding to the FCCPC in person. At the level of his organization’s operation, he should have a well-resourced Corporate and Regulatory department. It is their job to deal with NAFDAC, FCCPC and other government organs. One of the revelations of this drama is the fact that Chief Umeofia is still running the organization like a one-man riot squad!
It’s a thumbs down for Chief.
Barrister Inihebe Effiong. The Egodi family struck back at Erisco by hiring fast rising populist lawyer Inihebe Effiong who immediately went for the jugular after Chief Umeofia’s appearance on Arise. If the Chief sought to intimidate Chioma Egodi with the threat of a lawsuit, Inihebe made it clear that it will be fire for fire as he replied by saying he intends to counter sue, on behalf of his client for the sum of N500m. He is not impressed by the letter of apology which he says is worth less than the paper it is written on. It is clear that Chioma Egodi is no longer standing by her apology (which Effiong says was obtained under duress) and would not be publishing it on her fb page as she had agreed before she was released by the police. Chief Umeofia continues to insist that he would be heading to the court to sue for damages if she refuses to publish the apology on her page. All things being equal, a legal battle is imminent.
Effiong gets a thumbs up.
Olumuyiwa Adejobi, police spokesman. When first reached to make a statement on the tomato drama, Adejobi explained that he had no inkling, but by yesterday he went to great lengths to establish Chioma’s liability. As previously noted, he strenuously sought to explain that the weighty allegations against her were of a criminal and not a civil nature. It is however a bit surprising that he went all out to contradict the position of the FCCPC on the issue of jurisdiction. FCCPC had clearly written that this was a consumer protection matter and that it was statutorily empowered to take on the case and advised the police to hands off. Adejobi insists that that except the company(Erisco) decides to forgive Chioma, then she will definitely be facing criminal prosecution. This is clearly the official position of the police and in his role as police spokesman, he is bound to articulate it. His press statement does not however indicate that he is fully on top of the issue at stake. In their(Erisco) hurry to implicate Chioma the police were not properly apprised about what we suspect are the real issues that led to this.
He claims that Chioma, upon interrogation, could not produce the can of tomato mix, she could not identify where she bought the product and all that. The truth is that those facts are immaterial to the real issue which is that she bought and was talking about a spread as if it’s something to cook with. As for tasting the product, her opinion about sugar remains that, an opinion. We all have different tolerance levels for sugar. So what NAFDAC, even NAFDAC, considers safe may still be unsafe for people with underlying medical conditions. Our opinion is that the issue of sugar is neither here nor there. She has not accused the company of selling expired products or of selling contaminated products, she also did not report any adverse reaction upon tasting or using the product, so why are we looking for product or batch number?
As he rounded off his press statement, he left no one in doubt about the conclusions police investigators have arrived at even with little beyond circumstantial tit bits:
“It is a calculated attempt to run down the company or to blackmail the product(sic)”, said Adejobi in a magisterial pronunciation that in itself blurred the line existing between a prosecutor and a judge.
Mr Adejobi gets no thumb.