Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Will the Co-op's #HaveYourSay campaign provide the clarity it so sorely needs?

Ok, I’ll admit it.  I have a soft spot for the Co-op, or The Co-operative Group as it is now known.  Both my parents worked there. In fact my father spent 40 years with the organisation, rising through the ranks from the shop floor to a senior management position.

In recent years the Co-op’s reputation has taken a battering, primarily driven by the poor performance of its banking business and a distinct confusion as to what its purpose and business really is.  Bank? Supermarket? Convenience store? Funeral director? Travel agent? Ethical business?

In a move to re-vitalise the brand, the Co-op is now taking the bold step of finding out from the public what it should stand for through its mammoth Have Your Say campaign (#HaveYourSay).  A key part of the campaign is an online questionnaire seeking views of members, customers and potential customers on a variety of areas such as fairtrade, pricing and community involvement.

This is a bold move.  While it certainly reinforces the mutual’s historic roots of being owned and directed by its local customers, I can’t help think that it also smacks of desperation.  It sings: “we’ve given this a lot of thought but we couldn’t come up with any real ideas.  So we thought we’d ask you”.

The reality is that the Co-op has lost its way.  While its origins are in local mutual societies, a succession of mergers and acquisitions has created a behemoth that has become divorced from its membership and lost its original purpose.  And a successful ethical positioning in recent years has been eroded by its banking fiasco.

I’m all for asking customers what they think, but the Co-op’s survey looks too much like a clumsy exercise in reputation management.  I’m not sure what testing has been undertaken or whether focus groups were engaged to react to a series of propositions, but I have to say the questionnaire itself doesn’t imply there has been much preparatory work done.  It’s fairly long – about 20 minutes online – and a seemingly disjointed series of questions.  There’s no real attempt to explain the Co-op’s history or founding philosophy and there’s an assumption that everyone will understand it’s a mutual and what that really means. And there are no draft proposition areas to unpick or react to.

I really hope the Co-op finds its way soon but I’m not convinced that running this campaign will help it find the clarity it needs.  It would have been far better for its management to consult on a series of recommendations on what it believes its customer and community obligations should be and to be seen to listen to the feedback.

Why not take the survey and see for yourself: