Co-operatives have a powerful identity. An identity built on seven unique principles that no corporate social responsibility department in private businesses can replicate.
Whether operating in agriculture or education, energy or retail, banking or insurance, co-operatives are enterprises that put people at the heart of economic decision-making rather than the red-blooded rush to maximise their profits.
Many people think co-operatives are only about a social and ethical approach to business, but important as these are, we have something more. Something that encapsulates our identity – the seven principles that have been tried and tested since the Rochdale Pioneers set up a small shop in 1844. We were born a movement for the people.
Now is the time for the sector to grasp the mantle on behalf of values-led business and, most importantly, show our members and the general public that there is another way of doing business.
Earlier this year in the UK, research conducted by Co-operative News found that retail co-operatives invest almost 60% more of their profits in communities when compared with major (and private) retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda. This example can be replicated around the world.
An ethical approach and a social agenda are not the sole property of co-operatives. Many of our competitors claim ownership of these concepts too and that’s why, to many a casual observer, we all look the same. Put together our social and ethical profile with our principles and you have something very different.
As the global steward for the principles, the International Co-operative Alliance recognises that we need to make our case more powerfully, more frequently and more visibly.
In 2013, the Alliance launched the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade. A key theme of the Blueprint was the issue of co-operative identity; identity is a pillar of our co-operative personality, especially in a world where consumers feel disconnected from the short-term focus of private enterprise.
Co-operatives are inherently local, and are best known among the people whom they serve. But now we have ways of linking co-ops across the world. Firstly, the COOP Marque. Free to use, this is a unique stamp of co-operation that all co-operatives should adopt to set themselves apart from others. We are aiming for this to become one of the best known marques in the world by 2020, with users in 100 countries.
Another part of our common global identity is the use of the .coop domain name. Together the marque and .coop demonstrate our unity of purpose, and project our identity.
These are simple tools for co-operators to use. But it is up to our movement’s communicators and marketers to ensure our co-operative message is real for people. Our principles are a great marketing advantage that are ready to be turned into real sellable messages.
It is important that we collectively make a strong statement about who we are, because only then will the public recognise and understand the co-operative difference. Let’s be proud of who we are.