The coop brand: a case of blowing in the wind?

I have on my desk details of the forthcoming Co-operative Group AGM, a leaflet from the independent regional Midcounties society about their AGM, and some material that’s come through from the (also independent) Phone Co-op.

But it’s hard to tell the bits of paper apart. All three use the “The Co-operative” national cooperative branding, originally introduced with great fanfare (remember the hype over the Blowin’ in the Wind soundtrack for the TV advert?) as a way of updating British coops’ (collective) tired image. At the time this seemed to me a sign that things were moving forward.

The shared brand raises issues, however. Firstly, if you shop in a branded Co-operative store it can be very hard to know whether you’re in part of the Co-operative Group’s empire, or in a store run by one of the independents such as Midcounties, Central England or Southern that have adopted the brand. Often only the till receipt will tell you. This doesn’t seem a good way of encouraging member identification with their own society. It’s almost as though all building societies had chosen to dispense with their own signs and agreed to share a collective “The Building Society” identity.

Then there’s the problem that the some businesses (Co-operative Bank, Co-operative Pharmacy and Co-operative Travel) which were once part of the Group but which are now owned outside the movement and in no sense are any longer cooperatives continue to use the branding.

All in all, regional societies such as the Lincolnshire which chose to stick with their own logos may be feeling just a little smug.

I see that the question of the future of the brand – the rights to which are held by the Co-operative Group – is one of the motions up for debate at the Group’s AGM on May 16. The motion calls on the Group to recognise that it hold the brand rights ‘as custodian on behalf of the whole movement’. It’s an important issue: I’ll be interested to see how the debate goes.

International coops’ day coming soon

The first Saturday in July, as you may very well know, is International Day of Cooperatives, an idea which originally came from inside the coop movement but which many years back was also endorsed by the United Nations.

We try to mark the day in the town where I live, and I’ll be at a meeting later this week to discuss exactly what can be organised this year. But I’m pleased to see that the International Co-operative Alliance has produced a logo for the day – the first time, as far as I’m aware, that the ICA has done this.


Troubled waters at Calais

I have followed with interest over the past three years the successful operation of the cross-channel ferry MyFerryLink, which (following the collapse of the former company SeaFrance) has been managed as a workers’ cooperative (or in French, a cooperative society, a SCOP).

Encouraging, MyFerryLink’s business has been growing: turnover has grown from 74m euros in 2013 to 93m last year. Despite this, there are choppy waters ahead for the coop, however.

The arrangement has been a complicated one. It was Eurotunnel which purchased the boats from the old SeaFrance, and then sub-contracted with the newly established cooperative the actual running of the service. Eurotunnel’s involvement attracted the critical attention of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority on the basis that the Channel Tunnel’s operator shouldn’t also be running boats. The net result has been that Eurotunnel announced in January this year that it was selling the business.

Where this leaves the coop is not clear. Any new owner of Eurotunnel’s boats might be happy to maintain the arrangement with the coop – but then again, it might not.

It’s a difficult time. It’s further complicated by the fact that the chair of the Supervisory Board of the cooperative Didier Cappelle, one of the leading lights behind the original coop proposal, appears to have lost confidence in the management of the coop.

I’ll try to keep you posted as the story develops. (Meanwhile my thanks to Angela Greenwood who, by complete coincidence, gave me this afternoon last Thursday’s copy of Libération which ran a full page feature on developments at MyFerryLink. The piece is also available at the moment on Libé’s website.)


The Co-operative Group management’s remarkable performance

I try not to go on too much about the Co-operative Group (my aim here is to talk about cooperative businesses in all their diversity, across the world and not just in the UK), but current developments at the Group require some comment.

The top management (somehow I feel myself wanting to call them the top brass) have handled the election of the three Member-Nominated Directors to the Board by taking ineptitude to a quite remarkable new level. This is a consummate performance of how not to do it.

If you haven’t already picked up the story of how the Group has decided that its members will only have three candidates’ names on the ballot paper for the three vacancies, having failed to offer members the full six-person shortlist, I would refer you to recent news coverage in the Guardian. Have a look too at the piece written by Pauline Green (ex Co-operatives UK general secretary and now the International Co-operative Alliance’s much admired President) on how she was bumped at the last minute off the ballot paper.

Allan Leighton today in Co-op News offers the canard that the Lucky Three have the professional and business expertise which the others lacked, although quite how, say, Hazel Blears meets these criteria when Pauline Green doesn’t is beyond me.

I have to agree with Pauline when she states that “Contested elections are a pre-condition for a vigorous, lively and thrusting co-operative”.  As she points out, this is a devastating blow to hopes of a more democratic way ahead for the Group: “Anyone who knows the co-operative movement will understand without any equivocation that the refusal to give some serious consideration to the wishes of the member council was a move that in a stroke destroyed all the trust and confidence that might have been built in the coming weeks and months.”

I am worried for the Group. It is a poorly performing business in a sector where even the established market leaders are struggling. There are perhaps two ways the Group could be saved. It could be run simply as another concern, ditching any pretence of being a different or more ethical form of business, with the hopes that, before too long, it could make itself sufficiently attractive to a would-be purchaser. Or it could use its cooperative structure as a unique business advantage, majoring on its ethical difference (including such things as fairtrade) and taking advantage of the shopping experiences and feedback from its many millions of members to gain competitive edge over rivals.

My route would be the second. The Group’s current Board, I believe, have chosen the first.