…something borrowed, something blue
The Co-op Group’s new membership offering and brand re-launch is a marriage of traditional co-operative values and a member-led future.
The decision to rebrand The Co-op and revert to the familiar cloverleaf logo design is the latest stage in the evolution of the Group’s identity, as it leaves the recent past behind and forges on with its planned three-year rebuild.
The Co-op Cloverleaf was first adopted in the 1960s. Writing in Co-operative News in 1967, Philip Thomas, chief executive of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), said: “There is no point in hiding behind another name – we are the co-op, we should be proud of it and shout about it from the house tops […] The straightforward ‘Co-op’ mark will at once identify the product as being not just another CWS product but as a society’s own house brand.”
Now, the same line of thinking seems to have come back around as the society reintroduces its “iconic but contemporary identity” to stores and products.
Initial reaction has been mostly positive, with Co-op members expressing an affection and fondness for the branding. Feedback on social media has praised its “retro” cool and “back to basics” look.
Retail consultant Graham Soult also approves of the new/old logo. “It works really well,” he says. “It embodies lots of positive sentiments about the Co-op as an organisation. It also looks really good; it’s bold, crisp and clean.
“In terms of how the whole rebrand is being promoted, that works well too. It’s clear they’re not just saying it’s a new logo – it’s about rediscovering and reassessing the values of the Co-op.”
In the late 1960s, the launch of the Co-op brand by the CWS was heralded by a series of sales drives called the Big Six Savers, where six products would be picked for special display and a discount.
Alongside these promotions, the branding also took the human (-ish) form of King Co-op: the superhero creation of the CWS’s advertising agency at the time, Masius Wynne-Williams. “Who is King Co-op?” the adverts asked. “Every single person who works for the movement, you are King Co-op! Occupation: To represent the new power of the movement, working together – selling together.” The badge was declared as being, “One symbol – one movement”.
This sense of ‘one symbol’ was not wholly successful, and there remain problems for people inside and outside the movement in differentiating between the Group and the independent co-operative retail societies, some of which, until the launch of the rebrand at the Group’s AGM on 21 May, used same ‘The Co-operative’ branding.
In the 1960s, most societies adopted the Co-op cloverleaf symbol (which was refreshed in the 1990s). They then joined the Group in changing over to ‘The Co-operative’ in 2008. However some, such as Lincolnshire, Tamworth and Clydebank Co-operatives, kept hold of the cloverleaf and now find themselves back in line with the Group’s image.
Lincolnshire Co-op says it has the rights to use the modernised 1990s cloverleaf logo and is currently more than halfway through a rebrand with that 1990s design. “The cloverleaf logo is iconic and has a place in people’s hearts,” says Emma Snedden, spokesperson for Lincolnshire Co-op.
“We kept the cloverleaf as part of our logo because people do have positive associations with it, so we understand why the Co-operative Group has taken this decision.”
But what about the societies which changed to The Co-operative? Will they now follow suit?
A spokesperson for Central England Co-operative – an independent retailer with over 400 trading outlets and 330,000 members which uses The Co-operative branding – said the society was “wholly supportive of the research and hard work that has gone into […] the impressive membership offering and repurposing of the brand.”
Central England will “continue to to work closely with the Group during this period of change, but as yet it is too early to comment in any detail on future plans.”
The Southern Co-operative is another independent society which holds a licence to use ‘The Co-operative’ brand for its Food and Funeralcare businesses.
“We are part of a buying partnership with other co-operative societies that enables the buying and distribution of the products we sell in our food stores,” said a spokesperson. “As we will be selling own brand products featuring the new ‘Co-op’ logo, we will be using ‘Co-op’ branded materials, such as point of sale information. That is essential for promoting the products sold in store and is an integral part of our membership of the buying partnership.
The Southern Co-operative has yet to decide on the future of its own branding, saying: “We are in discussion with the Co-op Group to understand more about the opportunities the new brand and membership proposition presents. We will need to consider whether this approach is right for us and is compatible with our own future vision and business plans.
“The existing affinity Share of the Profits partnership we have with the Co-op Group and other independent societies who currently use ‘The Co-operative’ brand, which allows members to collect dividend points in any of these stores, will continue to operate.”
There is a balance to be made between the large-scale identity that comes with the Co-op, and the sense of the local shop as being exactly that: local
The team leading the branding change was aware of the importance in connecting up the Co-op’s varied businesses in customers’ minds. Helen Carroll, head of brand, said: “Our brief was to create an identity which would reflect our values and work across our diverse family of businesses, allowing them to compete effectively within their categories, but connect them in the minds of our members. I’m really proud that we have that now.”
For the Group and for the UK’s regional societies, community is key. There is a balance to be made between the large-scale identity that comes with the Co-op, and the sense of the local shop as being exactly that: local. One way the Group has addressed this is giving grammatical possession of stores to the community it serves. ‘The Co-operative’ store in Didsbury, for example, is now ‘Didsbury’s Co-op’.
Graham Soult believes the independent societies should also embrace this separation. “I quite like it when independent co-ops assert their independence and make it clear it’s Lincolnshire or Tamworth and not the Co-op Group,” says Mr Soult. “I’d argue that perhaps each independent do their own thing rather than embracing this new Co-op brand. I can see pros and cons of this.
“In terms of local understanding and being clear about a co-op, it’s more important to emphasise its roots in a particular community rather than embrace the overall co-op brand.”
In their research paper Rebranding a Federation: Insights from the UK Co-operative Movement, Eric Calderwood and Paul Freathy looked into the challenge of the rebrand from the 1990s cloverleaf to ‘The Co-operative’.
The research considers that previous developments of a branded house strategy had “met with limited success with societies providing numerous translations and interpretations of the various logos, fascias and emblems.”
This lack of consistency had made a coherent brand identity impossible and there had seemed little necessity in retaining previous embodiments of the brand, i.e. the cloverleaf.
We are recycling it, not just for nostalgia, but because it means something
This time around, however, the Co-op has embraced its most recognisable visual identity, and has used it to mark significant changes to how membership works.
There is no King Co-op this time but, as Co-op CEO Richard Pennycook told Co-op News in March last year, the reform at the Group is built upon the “past associations” of the Co-op and “150 years of doing the right thing”.
Addressing the AGM in May, Mr Pennycook said: “Our new Co-op membership will make us proud again of being a member and critically it will make it easier than ever before for our colleagues to be able to explain the benefits of membership to our customers.
“Going back to ‘Being Co-op’ and calling ourselves ‘Co-op’ reflects our desire that membership, the very thing that makes us truly distinctive, must be at the heart of everything we say and do.
“We are recycling it, not just for nostalgia, but because it means something.”
- You can find full coverage and analysis of the Co-op Group AGM, with details of the membership and branding changes, at thenews.coop/coopagm2016