The sincerest form of flattery?

In 2010, CCA commissioned an Ipsos Reid public opinion survey in an effort to measure public awareness and perception of co-operatives.  While many of the results were positive,...

In 2010, CCA commissioned an Ipsos Reid public opinion survey in an effort to measure public awareness and perception of co-operatives.  While many of the results were positive, the survey showed that a significant number of Canadians weren’t all that clear about what a co-operative is.   One of the most telling statistics was the fact that 49 per cent of respondents identified Costco as a co-operative, while 40 per cent did the same for WestJet.

Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter: “Don’t think outside the box – think outside the building!”

On its website, Costco describes itself as a “membership warehouse club dedicated to bringing our members the best possible price on brand-name merchandise.” For $55 a year, individuals can buy a membership which gives them the right to shop at Costco.

WestJet publicly describes its employees as “owners” on the basis of its employee share purchase plan.  Less than a month ago, WestJet  posted a message on its Twitter feed which read: “We’re looking for a new owner! Job posting: administrative assistant.”

There’s nothing wrong with buying clubs or employee share purchase plans – in fact, share purchasing plans are one way to increase employee loyalty and identification with the company.  But Costco is not a consumer co-op; nor is WestJet a worker co-op — they aren’t co-ops at all.  But they have appropriated certain elements of the co-operative model (membership, ownership) in order to attract more customers to their businesses.

Throughout the International Summit, countless speakers have bemoaned the fact that co-ops  aren’t sufficiently recognized by decision-makers, the media or the broader public for their contribution to the economic and social well-being of their communities. Yet here are just two examples of non-co-ops that were savvy enough to recognize that certain elements of our model are very attractive to consumers.  Being a member generates a sense of belonging. And air travellers are more likely to trust a company where the “owners” are flight attendants and administrative assistants than nameless, faceless shareholders.

Kathy Bardswick, president and CEO of The Co-operators, raised this issue in her panel presentation today.  And it was one of the main elements of a lively presentation by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School.  She said people are attracted to enterprises with missions and values, which is why so many big companies are embracing corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability initiatives.  At the same, many real co-ops don’t ensure that their members and employees are aware of what it means to be part of a co-operative; in her view, co-ops should be sure that their members and employees are reminded of their co-op’s mission and values on a daily basis.  As she bluntly put it: “Costco isn’t a co-operative, but it sure behaves like one when many co-operatives do not.”

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?  Does the fact that other types of businesses are appropriating elements of our model strengthen or weaken the co-operative movement?  And how do we promote the co-operative difference when the differences are becoming less evident to the broader public?

No one, including Professor Kanter, has all the answers. But she did talk a lot about the need for co-ops to lead the way in innovation: “don’t think outside the box: think outside the building!”   She has thrown down the gauntlet — are we up to the challenge?

– Donna Balkan

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