Affordability, abundance, and nutritional value paved the way for a can of sardines to become a ubiquitous food item in Filipino households. Because of the many flavors and variants available in the market today, the P17 can of sardines has transcended from a humble everyday staple to a high-value, versatile product.
In the span of 65 years since it was first introduced, the iconic red and green Ligo can has seen 10 of 16 Philippine presidents as well as the rise and fall of the sardine fish stock. Now, the next generation of the Ligo enterprise—composed of brothers Mikko, Mark, and Macky Tung—is poised to push the brand further, developing fresh ways Filipinos can benefit from the modest, silver-skinned fish.
Sardines are an economically-important fish source, feeding and giving livelihood to millions of Filipinos every year. According to a Food and Agriculture Organization Globefish Report in 2013, Filipinos consume roughly 15 million cases of canned sardines every year.
“It’s something you can always rely on,” says Mark matter-of-factly, vice president for sales and marketing and the second of the three brothers. Sardines are an economically important fish source, feeding and giving livelihood to millions of Filipinos every year. According to a Food and Agriculture Organization Globefish Report in 2013, Filipinos consume roughly 15 million cases of canned sardines every year.
The Ligo brand reached local shores in the 1950s through Gregory Tung, Sr. But it was his son Gregory Tung, Jr., who transformed their trading company into a manufacturing company in the 1980s. It was during his time when Ligo sardines, an imported brand, began exporting locally sourced, canned sardines—employing hundreds in their Caloocan factory and giving more business to fishermen in Zamboanga.
It was the beginning of a long and arduous journey of sustaining a multi-million canning business. Their Caloocan factory is a major advantage in the industry. “When [local] fish catch is low, we work 24/7 trying to secure fish outside,” says Mikko, eldest son and the vice president for operations.
“Not all brands can use imported fish because not all brands have factories in Metro Manila. In Zamboanga, there’s no port that could handle big vessels,” he elaborates. While they try to use local fish as much as possible, they also have suppliers from China, Morocco, Japan, Oman, US, and India.
Family comes first for the Ligo owners
Less than 10 years ago, Ligo finally opened a manufacturing facility in Zamboanga, the sardine capital of the Philippines. This new addition increased production five times over what they used to produce in Manila. However, before it became a reality, Tung Jr. needed to make sure that at least one of his sons would take over. “He doesn’t need it since he’s retiring already. So, when we told him that we’ll continue, tinayo ‘yun,” says Mikko.
While it was a “forced” internship, Mikko Tung says it was through their own volition that they wanted to pursue the Ligo enterprise. “We want to keep the legacy going,” says Mark. So, after working a year or two outside the business after graduation, they all joined the family business and eventually bought the license from California brand Liberty Gold.
Interestingly, the Caloocan factory was their ultimate summer destination growing up. “I remember cutting the fish,” says Mikko. “Yes, cutting the fish then sliding the knife through it,” adds Macky, the youngest and vice president for advertising and promotions.
While it was a “forced” internship, Mikko says it was through their own volition that they wanted to pursue the Ligo enterprise. “We want to keep the legacy going,” says Mark. So, after working a year or two outside the business after graduation, they all joined the family business and eventually bought the license from California brand Liberty Gold.
Allow room for growth
After over 30 years since their father took over the business from their grandfather, what can the new generation contribute to the 65-year legacy that their forefathers built?
“One thing our dad has always taught us is to always innovate. Never stop growing,” says Macky, acknowledging the constantly changing flavor profile of Filipinos. “For how many years, it’s always been sardines in tomato sauce. As classic as that is, people want something new, which is why, this year, we announced new bold and exciting variants.”
“Our sriracha is already one of our bestsellers,” says Mikko Tung. “The spicy palate of Filipinos has grown throughout the years. So ‘yung dating red namin is no longer enough. Extra hot is just extra hot. At least sriracha will give you the heat and a different kind of flavor.”
That includes sriracha sardines released last year. After researching the trend, they immediately tried it out to see if it would work with sardines. “Our sriracha is already one of our bestsellers,” says Mikko. “The spicy palate of Filipinos has grown throughout the years. So ‘yung dating red namin is no longer enough. Extra hot is just extra hot. At least sriracha will give you the heat and a different kind of flavor.”
“Given the fact that we are one of the pioneers in the sardine industry, we feel like it’s our obligation, our responsibility, to pave the way for the sardine industry,” Macky says. Ligo sardines with calamansi is another first in the industry. While many brands were trying to figure out how to keep the calamansi flavor in the product for as long as it is on the shelf, they were the first ones to solve the puzzle.
Let the new guard take over
Aside from being more agile in product development, the three hopes to propel their marketing and branding to greater heights. “The past generation would always sell the product and not the brand,” Macky explains. “If our dad’s legacy was manufacturing, ours would be to elevate the brand past the sardines stigma,” says Mikko.
“We can never be too complacent. Even though we’re a strong brand, a lot of our competitors are very aggressive. So you have to be always studying, innovating, to make sure that we’re still up there,” says Mark.
“Love your brand because if you don’t, you will fail,” says Mikko Tung.
Beyond the products, Ligo has also collaborated with streetwear brand SupportYourFriends (SYF). “The partnership with SYF is just the start of bigger things, a proof of concept. We have a lot of competitors in the industry but only Ligo is in the position to actually create and develop merchandise,” says Macky. A bigger campaign called Ligo Love is set to roll out before the year ends.
With the fast-paced, easily distracted market today, a new perspective is vital in the survival of a brand. “Love your brand because if you don’t, you will fail,” says Mikko. For Macky, their best asset is family: “No one knows you better than family. Use that to your advantage. Argue together. Solve things together and things will fall into place once you start to grasp family.”