Co-operation: How? debate #1 – How do we promote the co-operative message and secure our identity?

Co-operatives need to focus on principles to secure their identity, said the president of the International Co-operative Alliance. In an introduction to a series of pitches on how...

Co-operatives need to focus on principles to secure their identity, said the president of the International Co-operative Alliance.

In an introduction to a series of pitches on how to take forward co-operative identity, Pauline Green said: “We cannot secure our identity unless we know who we are. Even hearing from people at this event, some people think co-operatives are about values and ethics. The word principles do not appear.”

Following the difficulties of the Co-operative Group over the past year, Dame Pauline said the rest of the world is watching. “They are waiting for the British movement to recommit itself and to be clear about who they are,” she said.

“They are watching and copying so much of what we’ve done on messaging, branding, membership over the last years. We have an iconic status around the world and we must not lose that.”

Dame Pauline told delegates that the tools to promote their co-operative identity have already been provided by the International Co-operative Alliance, through using the global COOP marque and by purchasing a .coop domain.

Added Dame Pauline: “We will not promote our message if we fall back into old habits of talking to ourself. We have to talk out. 2012 gave us a great opportunity to talk to decision makers, and the media, people in the economic world.

“We must not slip back into a defensive mode. This is the moment for us to say the co-operative movement is great, fantastic, inspirational and working well everywhere.

“Of course, there will be odd instances of problems, but we believe we will come through this stronger and better. That’s the message we have to give very clearly to the media.”

Dame Pauline said the big challenge over the coming months is encapsulating the seven co-operative principles into “real sellable messages” and not just talk about ethics.

“We have to think about putting these principles into great marketing tool,” she said. “This is the co-operative difference. All those other businesses, M&S and everybody else is out there saying they’re an ethical business, they’re a values led business – and we can do this too.”

“These principles are our co-operative difference. This is our co-operative identity. Let’s be proud of who are, let’s talk about it and lets show it to the rest of the world.”

Pitch 1: A fair tax mark

During Co-operatives Fortnight, which has the theme of local, loved and trusted, co-operators should think about what the word “trusted” means.

Pete Westall, general manager for co-operative social responsibility at Midcounties Co-operative, said: “Co-operatives should be trusted to do the right things, what I would like to propose is that co-operatives take the lead on fair tax, just as we have previously done on Fairtrade.

“This will reinforce to our members and customers that the co-operative movement always has been, and always will be, at the forefront of co-operative responsibility for this country.”

The world’s first Fair Tax Mark was launched in February, with support from Midcounties, Unity Trust and the Phone Co-op. It is  a label for organisations that pay their fair share of tax and are open and transparent.

Delegates largely welcomed the idea. But Alex Bird from questioned the technical difficulties for some co-operatives. He said, for example, limited liability partnership co-operatives and Bencom societies are exempt from tax, but they do pay taxes through wages and VAT.

He asked if there is a way the scheme could be open to those types of organisations. Mr Westall said the scheme is starting small, as Fairtrade did, and that areas such as this will be considered in the future.

Pitch 2: The COOP marque

One of the designers behind the global COOP marque called on co-operatives to embrace the identity.

Commissioned by the International Co-operative Alliance, Sion Whellens, who works for design co-operative Calverts, said co-operatives now have a recognisable symbol that is “simple and really flexible”.

“It is an amazing opportunity for us,” he said. “It’s really important that we seize this moment. It’s so simple, that it’s almost breathtaking.”

He wants delegates to understand and become advocates for the COOP marque. “The general public thinks the co-op is good, but if you ask people what co-op is they don’t understand. This is a conversation starter, it is all about repetition and using it everywhere.”

In future, all co-operatives should include the marque in all areas of communication. He told co-operators to look for the marque everywhere in their own co-operative and ensure it is used as a USP against competitors.

Delegates backed use of the marque, but some discussed the potential confusion of a marque when The Co-operative brand is already strong in the UK. Mr Whellens said that when the national retail brand was being developed there was meant to be an element that helped to create an identity for the wider co-operative movement, but this was dropped.

Dave Pownall, a director of the Co-operative Group, said thoughts are changing within the organisation. “The new management executive tell us that our strongest brand is ‘The Co-op’, not ‘The Co-operative’.” Mr Whellens said that he always knew ‘The Co-op’ would be back.

Jo Bird, of Co-operative Business Consultants, warned that it would be “problematic” if businesses such as the Co-operative Bank or Co-operative Travel used the marque, since they are not wholly-member owned businesses.

Mr Whellens would not be drawn on the verification process, which is handled by the ICA, but said that some organisations  that are on the fringe of the sector have already received approval, such as the Co-operatives Unit of the International Labour Organization, which itself is not a co-operative.

Pitch 3: A national co-operative development consortium

Co-operative development organisations across the UK are small and diverse, but a consortium of business advisers can help grow the sector.

Alex Bird, a co-operative business adviser from, has pitched the idea for a national co-operative development consortium.

“Mutual and co-operative development has been diluted,” he said, “and this dilution has been to homeopathic proportions.”

Such a national body can collectively tap into UK and EU funding, something that it more difficult for individual advisers, and can also co-ordinate government support.

Said Mr Bird: “While our community and worker co-op centres are growing and expanding they are still terribly small. Outside the movement, co-ops are recognised as a good thing, very few appreciate how they can grow sustainably.

“They’re still seen by some people as a soft form of business, rather than the economic power house that they can become.

“Ironically, the Department for International Development recognises the power of co-ops in its third world work where it is the preferred model of economic development, back home the UK government doesn’t.

“In part this is because we don’t have a  national co-operative development organisation to which co-operative entrepreneurs can turn to for advice and assistance. At the same time we have no organisation to invest in to deliver such a programme.”

After the main pitches, the audience were invited to submit their own ideas:

Your pitches

Sally Chicken, director of East of England Co-operative, said co-operatives need the courage to “lose control” and allow the public to interpret the co-operative message in their own way through digital campaigning.

Ms Chicken said: “I’d like to go back to the building blocks of what this debate is. This debate is about to promote the co-operative message. How we do it needs to come into the 21st century. We need to move away from mission statements written in boring reports, we need to move away from ‘this is the message coming from the top’. We’ve got to free our message and let the people get interactive with it, and for me this is through digital media.”

Edmund Potter, of Delta-T Devices, said he wants to encourage “common sense values” by implementing a mandatory pay ratio within co-operatives. He cited an example from Mondragon, which is a ratio of 6:1, and said that in an era of “unseemingly high banker bonuses” there was an opportunity for co-operatives to make a difference.

The pitches were voted for by conference attendees, and the winning pitches to be concentrated on over the next year were:

  1. The Fair Tax Mark
  2. The COOP marque
  3. Digital campaigning


Read more:

Debate #2 – How do we take participation in co-operatives to the next level?

Your Pledges – Delegates share their pledges to further co-operation over the year


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