How do you market the co-operative identity?

Representatives of Midcounties and Openfield discussed the issue at Congress

Co-operative culture came under the microscope at a session of Co-op Congress in June when representatives to two leading co-ops discussed ways to market the movement’s values.

Pete Westall, chief values officer at the Midcounties Co-op, whose operations include retail, funerals, energy, telecoms and childcare, said putting the identity “at the heart of customer experience” is especially important, given the society’s range of operations.

He gave the example of the Midcounties’ nursery business, Co-op Childcare. With all nurseries rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, the society had “licence to do something a bit different”.

Firstly, Midcounties is using member insight, and encouraging every parent who has a child at one of its nurseries to become a member.

“How do we reflect member needs and wishes in what we do in those nurseries?” asked Mr Westall. “We ask their priorities. They came back saying it was education – with education on the environment at the top.”

In response, the society set up an eco-school programme, showing children where food comes from – and ensuring food transparency in the nursery’s own meals.

First aid care is also important to parents, said Mr Westall, so Midcounties has made a big investment in training to ensure every nursery has Millie’s Mark, which signifies excellence in paediatric first aid.

This drive to put a message consistently across all nurseries is replication throughout the society, with member experience the key to Midcounties’ co-op culture.

“Putting members at the heart of what we do is important,” said Mr Westall, “and we have one person on our executive team whose job that is.

“The culture is different – for the first time there is accountability at management level to make sure we stick to those values.”

He gave the example of low-cost funerals. “I have no problem as long as people getting that service are completely aware of what they are getting. If it was just a sales drive, we would challenge it.”

Different challenges in establishing a co-op culture among members is faced by Openfield, the UK’s only national grain marketing co-op – a large organisation with a turnover of £650m, supplying numerous high-profile customers.

Marketing manager Richard Kaye described efforts to “get everyone on board with what we are”, including the farmers who own it, its customers and its staff.

To do this, Mr Kaye led efforts to clean up Openfield’s “muddled” messaging and branding; when he joined the co-op it had different messaging for customers – “ingredients with integrity” and for members – “working with farmers for farmers”.

“And the trucks just said ‘Openfield’ – they didn’t say anything about us,” he added; this was fixed by adding the words “seed, fertiliser, grain, storage” to side of trucks.

“Farmers now know they can buy seed from us,” he said.

To explain the diversity of its customer base – which includes Warburtons, Happy Egg, Carling, Adnams, Brewdog and Waitrose – without doing brand association, he took the slogan “British grain for British food and drink” under icons to illustrate beer, bread, cereal, chicken and eggs.

Finally, Openfield is using the word “partnership” to stress its co-operative difference from foreign-owned grain plcs who send their profits overseas.

All these messages are integrated, he added, so that “everyone can talk about how they add value to the Openfield Partnership”.

“The challenge now is to get our 4,000 owners on board with what we do, to demonstrate member benefit. We need to get them in a room and talk – emails aren’t read, booklets are thrown away.”

Asked why there was nothing about being a co-op in the signage, Mr Kaye said communicating the co-op identity is a “challenge”.

“Partnership is my modern way of translating it,” he said. “We consulted the farmers and people didn’t understand ‘co-operative’; but they did understand partnership. As we move forward I want to go back to that. A line in the material does say we’re the only national grain marketing co-op.”