Consumer behaviour propels change in marketing says Iquo Ukoh

On January 22, 2016, as she counted down to her 60th birthday; the delectable ‘unofficial’ face of the Maggi brand, Mrs. Iquo Ukoh, retired as Executive Director, Marketing Services from Nestle Nigeria Plc. She had worked with the nutrition, food and wellness company for 34 remarkable years. The Nutritionist/Dietician turned Marketing guru had so much to reminisce about on her career at Nestle, her foray into the world of marketing and other matters when she spoke with AMOS OLADELE, ANIETIE UDOH and AMINA BRAI OMOIKE in her Ilupeju, Lagos office recently. Excerpts:

Congratulations on your retirement, Ma. How has life been since retirement?
For me, it has been a three-year journey to retirement. You know there is a statutory age at which you have to retire so there is something about planning for retirement emotionally, financially and otherwise. So for me, I had actually prepared for this time. And really, if you have been doing the same thing for over three decades, I guess you get to a point that you are tired and you just want to make a detour and do something else. At the point of retirement, it has not been much different from when I was working. I just transited from one table to another. I have not taken my holidays yet but for now, I just took a break from work.

You mentioned ‘preparing for retirement’. How did you prepare for retirement?

Understand that at the point you are retiring, you are 60. Of course, people take early retirements – you could retire at 50 or 40. At the point you are retiring, I think it is a question of asking yourself that physically, mentally, physiologically; what are the kinds of things you think you would want to do. I see people retiring at an older age and get into things that their strength is not able to carry. First of all, what can your strength carry but more importantly, what do you really like doing? It should be something you can do at 11pm, 1am and you would not feel stressed about it. You would love doing it. It also depends on who you are in terms of family and what have you. If your kids are still in school, you have to have made enough money in order to sustain them. It is for you to take stock and ask yourself ‘what is it that I want to do’. But in retirement, I think the greatest stress that people have is ‘how do I occupy myself now? ‘ Some people are clueless. You come from waking up at 6am and getting home at 9pm every day to the point where you now wake up at 9am and wonder ‘what do I do with myself’? It is that thing about challenging your brain, your intellect; doing something resourceful with your time.

So what was it like, working with Nestle?

It was a pretty exciting journey. Each organisation has something to bring to the table and you as an individual, what do you bring to the table as well? For me, it was an exciting journey. I was working with great brands and a great company so I am taking away with me a lot of learning. It is like I have been through a marketing school. If you understand my background, I am a nutritionist/dietician by background and working with Nestle has made me become the better and stronger marketer that I am. So I am taking that along with me. Also, for those times when it was not as good as it was supposed to be or how I wanted it to be, I also learned. Good times and bad times were all learning processes for me.

You always say that Nestle was your first real job. Did you ever imagine that your first job would end up being your only job – like a long term thing?

Sometimes, you start a journey and since I am not God, I couldn’t have imagined how that journey would go. But understand that there are a few times I tried to leave the company as with everybody else. I asked myself; ‘am I going to do this forever’ and I made attempts to leave. I tried to value myself in the market and I found out that each time the complexities of being in that situation were not the kinds of things I wanted. Also, I always looked at the value of these other organisations and I noticed they were in sync with my value, things they valued and things the organisation I was working with also valued. So 34 years on, sometimes I pinch myself to ask ‘did I really stay that long’. But the beauty was that I was not always doing the same thing over those 34 years. I think it is the same thing the young person wants to do – you stay in an organisation for two, three years, you get tired and move on and on like that. For me, I was fortunate to be doing different things in the same organisation so it did look like I moved back and forth like the typical young professional will do.
Could you kindly take us through the metamorphosis of your career at Nestle Nigeria.
I joined Nestle as a medical delegate which is what many people know as medical representative. I then became the nutrition adviser for the department I worked in at that time. So when the opportunity to be involved in brand management presented itself in the early 90s, I took that opportunity and that was how I came into marketing. Of course, I worked on so many brands in the organisation until I became the marketing manager for Nestle Nigeria.Subsequently, I was called to join the directors on the board and that was where I left off.

Did you need to undergo any specific course in marketing or did you just learn on the job?

I think I learnt on the job but you know, there is something I kept on asking myself which was that when I was in secondary school, if someone had come to talk to me about marketing, maybe I would have gone that way. But marketing came naturally to me. Of course, you know you had to learn the business side to marketing but the area of creative, ideas and all that all seemed to come naturally when I wasn’t in marketing.

Does it then mean that the course you read wasn’t an ideal course for you?

When I look back and ask myself, one of the reasons I think I stayed long in Nestle was the question of nutrition meeting marketing. I was working for a food company and it is not many people that had the kind of combination I had which is that I understand food from the perspective of having read about food. And I am coming to market food. I guess I was in a better position than someone who read political science and was in marketing. That person might not have been a better fit than I. I think maybe, I would have read Nutrition and Dietetics and read Marketing on top of it.

You studied Nutrition and Dietetics. Was that your dream course or did you just find yourself doing it?

No, I didn’t just get into it. I remember that some dieticians came to my school then – Methodist Girls High School, Yaba – and then we had career talk that is people that came to talk to students about careers and so many people came. I just had an attraction for this. I decided to search and found out that most schools that offered the course were in the UK and my dad said ‘I don’t have the money to send you to the UK’. But finally, I found out that University of Nigeria, Nsukka offered it and they had just started then. We were just three in my class. There was no doubt in my mind that this was what I wanted to do.

You rose through the ranks in Nestle. From your experience, what does it take a woman to succeed in the corporate world?

For me, I always say have a vision. Where are you heading? And I believe it applies to a woman just the same way it applies to a man. Where are you going in the organisation? Where do you want to end up in the organisation? Do you want to be the MD? Do you want to be the marketing manager? Do you want to stop at brand manager? What? Where? I think it is when you have defined that, you then start the journey. And then, you can strategize. I know we have the same brain cells as men. But as a woman, you have a different triangle – you, your husband (if you are married) and your kids (if you have them). And most times, you want that triangle to have three equal sides but sometimes, those sides are not equal but your aim is always to have those three sides equal. That is what I tried to do. But I think the first thing to consider was ‘what value was I bringing to the table?’ I wasn’t there to be counted as a woman but I was there to be counted as a staff of the organisation. That is the first step. I didn’t think that because I was a woman, I should be given preferential treatment but that I should be given as much opportunity as a man was given opportunity. That is what most women are asking for but again as a woman, you have to check. What is my situation? At what point have I started having kids? Let’s face it. If you start having kids at 25, by the age of 35, your child is 10 years old and you are not tugging around with a little child. If you start having kids at 36, then it is a different ball game. At the age of 40, the question is ‘can you manage your four-year-old and your work’? It is about making choices and I made my choice and I was able to do it. I guess I started having the kids when I should have started having the kids but at no time did I forget about the husband and kids side of that triangle. I kept it going. Maybe I would have been much higher than that, but it was my decision where I stopped. So the bottom line is ‘where are you headed’? Then work towards it.

What was marketing like back when you began and have there been many changes?

There are a few changes and these changes have been propelled by consumer behaviour. For me, we have had to adapt marketing to the consumers. Now we are digital. We have learnt how to market to people on that platform. So there has been an evolution. But back then, I think we had some stronger, more effective campaigns. If I want to ask myself, the advent of the internet and the availability of information is reducing creativity. Back then, people had to think and they thought and looked at the environment where they were and looked at things that gave them inspiration from the environment. Now, if I check my mobile phone, there are so many ads that have been done; so the temptation is for me to want to take and adapt, rather than to create from the beginning. Last week (the week before the interview), I took it upon myself from Monday to Friday to listen to commercials on radio and now, I can’t remember anyone except maybe, Gala. I can’t and that is because they were just mere announcements as far as I am concerned. People are just announcing things. There is nothing that makes me want to sing along. When we were in the primary school, way back then, most of the commercials were used as marching songs. But now, there is nothing for me to remember. I haven’t taken time to watch the ones on TV but I must say there are not too many of those things that strike you, things that are memorable. Where I believe we have some work to do is to look at our environment to create and have more local content in our ads.

Is this a global trend or just restricted to our local environment?

I am not so sure it is a global trend but I want to believe that we are getting a bit too Westernized and we don’t see the benefit of creating from the scratch. Some are like that in the music industry – they are still retaining the local content but in the commercials, it is not the same.

Can you place your finger on the turning point in your career?

It was in the early 90s. In fact, it was in 1989. We were coming out of a recession as we are in Nigeria today. I was in still in Nutrition department. The then marketing manager said everybody in Marketing should write down their vision for the market in the 90s. I gave my submission – it was about three pages. I was keen to move over to Marketing so I wrote; and three to six months later, I was in Marketing. That was how I left Nutrition. Interestingly, I don’t know why I kept a copy of that article, but I read it at my send-forth and all the things I had written and suggested in 1990 were still as relevant now. Some of the things I had suggested should be done to the different brands are what we have done or we are still going to do.

What are the challenges of marketing in Nigeria?

I just wrote an article about building your brand and ensuring that you have a profitable income today that is 2016.You have an idea; you have a brand to build but your colleagues in the finance department are telling you that we can’t spend on the bottom line. It is a challenge in marketing.

Can you recall the evolution of marketing in Nigeria?

I think the environment largely determines what you do. In addition to the fact that most organisations have to find out what they really want – is the company there for the long term or they just want to make quick money? Before now, and I mean the past five years, there has been strong brand building. There have been certain solid brand building efforts, and I don’t mean promotions. People believe that they can use promotion to drive the business. I challenge brand owners to look at this thing carefully. Ultimately, the brand will suffer; so even if you have to do your promotion, find a way to weave brand building into it. The fact that you are just shouting ‘buy two of my products and get one free’ doesn’t mean you are building a brand at that time. So we should understand clearly what we are doing with this brand. Also, I have seen brands where having been over-promoted, the people are disappointed. So even from a well-established, strong brand we have to be careful on how we are managing these brands.

Is there such a thing as making a weak brand strong? If so, how can this be achieved?

I think I would look at it from ‘what does this brand have to offer’ perspective. No matter how weak a brand is, there must be one or two positives about the brand. The product itself is the soul of the brand. You can’t come and sell me a lousy phone just because it has a brand name. I am looking for something that delivers and has some features, but you just put one name on it with nothing, it wouldn’t work. So if a brand is unknown (because every brand starts off being unknown), you can build it. If the brand starts to weaken, you can build it. By the way, we can build the Nigerian brand.

As a marketing professional, what is your take on brand Nigeria?

I think we are not putting our best features forward in terms of brand building. I always say that slogans are not the brand. Just because you write a name and put a slogan at the base does not mean you are building a brand. We have not shown the strong features of Nigeria. We need to identify what exactly are our strong turfs and benefits and sell them to the outside world. Also, every brand has a weakness. The Nigeria brand has a weakness but I am saying that we should start by selling the strong points and then we can then continue to improve on the weaknesses.

You have recorded many firsts in your career – first female marketing manager and first female on the board of directors of Nestle. How does that make you feel?

I attribute everything to God but in addition to hard work, I also desired to be different. Like I said, my background is not marketing but I got into that field and said ‘I must do Marketing and do it well’. I remember when I started using the print media. There were not many people using the print media then. I started getting media exposure – every event; every aspect about the brand was on the pages of the papers. Those were some of the things that one did to be different. For me, it was about innovation.

Who are some of your role models and what impact did they have one you?

For me, it was Madeline Albright, the former US secretary of state. I had always admired her and I saw the way she took her country. Once I had the privilege of attending a summit and I was in the same room as she was. I saw the way she was taking notes and she was no longer the secretary of state. And I saw this lady writing away. At that time, she was already in her 60s and she was still taking notes. So there is no end to learning. It is not about age. It is just wanting to keep yourself abreast, fresh and innovating yourself.

Is it true that every career woman needs a role model or mentor to succeed in the corporate world?

Role model, maybe not; mentor, maybe yes. I didn’t have one but I guess in today’s world, you need somebody – not necessarily that every day you are sitting in front of the person. The fact that I didn’t have one does not mean I didn’t need one. What mentorship does for you is that somebody holds you by the hand. I mean, why must you stumble if I stumbled? It is like, ‘I want to go in this direction’ and somebody just helps me. I know that when this interview is published, there would be many ladies who would be inspired by it. This is mentorship but it wasn’t intended as such. It is just looking up to an older person. It is not more than that and for women; it becomes important because the life of a woman is different from that of a man. For instance, you close from your organisation at 6pm. The top executives and brand managers want to have a drink. A male brand manager would be invited but you will not be invited so how are you going to meet these women at the top? It is via mentorship because there is no where we are hanging out. And somehow, it is about top-of-mind. Whether we like it or not, that young man that hangs out with the MD or whatever, is more top-of-mind than the lady; so the lady has to work extra hard. Mentorship would help the lady learn the tips and the tricks of how to network in the organisation even if you cannot hang out.

Have you mentored some young professionals over the years? Would you name some of your mentees that have made you proud?

Oh yes, though I might not want to mention their names. Incidentally, I was just reading something from one of my mentees. She told me that she just got admission into Harvard to read Government Policies – out of 11,000 people from 140 countries. For me, it is exciting. I have people that have gone on to start their own businesses and they are succeeding. And for me, there is nothing more now except to give back.

Now that you are retired, what is next for you?

Entod Marketing Limited is my new company. There would be trainings, marketing strategies, helping organisations to put some sanity to their brands. Entod Marketing will also be glad to have students who are looking for places to do their internship. I also have a food blog – 1Q Food Platter. I am doing quite a bit in that area to create content for organisations.

How does marketing in multinational organisations compare with how it is handled in local industries; and also as a course of study?

Marketing is marketing anywhere. Of course, in multinational organisations, it is well-structured. In some other organisations, maybe it is not so well-structured. And therefore, you tell a brand manager to write a brief and he doesn’t know what to do. Multinationals come with the total package. For many, there is already a template on where to plug in your brief. It might not be so in smaller organisations. Also, these small organisations have Marketing and Sales departments intertwined. But again, it is about the size of the organisation and the ability to pay for overhead. If you can’t afford to do that, you have to merge functions. So people know what marketing is but now call sales, marketing because marketing sounds a bit sexier.

If you could change one thing about the way you handled your career, what would it be?

I would have come into marketing earlier than I did; and I did want to, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.

What would you say is the future of marketing, especially in Nigeria?

Just like every part of the world, I see a fast evolution in digital and I think for many organisations, we are still slow in catching up. We are still thinking everything has to be radio, TV, print. Those ones will be there and it is important they are there to balance out the kind of environment we operate in. The truth is that internet penetration is not at its peak yet. However, I see that organisations have to move faster than they are doing at the moment. Today’s youths are the ones we should be targeting. In the next five years, those would be our core consumers. So whatever sector or category you are, that is an area we should be looking at critically. There would be a lot of changes in our lifestyle – how we eat, how we shop, how we drink, how we use technology is going to evolve and I think marketers should understand this quickly. Today’s 20-year-old started his /her life with a computer. They didn’t know anything else so at 25, that person would hopefully be through with school and has a job. That would be your major consumer. How are you going to market that person? Is it the radio in the house or the radio on his phone? Is it the TV which is a box in the sitting room or the TV on his phone, or YouTube?

In your experience, what are the qualities of a good marketer?

For me, there are a couple of things. You have to be able to innovate very rapidly, think outside the box, and create. Above all, you have to be a good business manager. Marketing is not just about advertising. Marketing is about managing a business. Advertising is only a part of that business. You have to innovate because innovation keeps you ahead of others.

Do you have time for leisure and how do you engage in it?

If I tell you that my leisure is the blog which is a lot of work. But I collect a lot of arts. I read when I have time but I write a lot. I like writing. And when I talk about the food blog, it is also where I recreate. It is exciting to know that I can create Nigerian recipes from foods that you already know.

Your love for cooking is not in doubt. Are your culinary skills innate or learned?

Partly so. As an Efik woman, what choice do you have but to like food? But after some time for me, it went beyond the cooking but about health – the impact of food on health which is what I share on my food blog. I have seen it in my life that you save a lot of money on hospital bills by eating healthy.
What would be your message to the Nigerian woman, the girl child?
Dream big but don’t lower your standard. That is it.


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