Branding, rebranding, and de-branding

High profile business fiascos, such as Coca Cola’s maladroit ‘new Coke’ attempt to change the taste of its product in 1985, form the basis of case studies for business schools around the world. Will business schools now also include the Co-operative Group’s recent decision to abort its 2008 “The Co-operative” rebrand among their case studies?

The 2008 rebrand was a major event for the British co-operative movement – and an expensive one. At the time, it was seen as confirmation that co-operatives were putting behind them their reputation for shabby stores, expensive prices and poor quality goods. With great drum-banging, the Co-operative Group announced that it had secured rights to use Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind soundtrack for its TV advertisements.

So what, if business schools pick up on this latest twist to the co-operative story, will they consider the real fiasco?  Will it be the 2008 rebranding exercise, abandoned so quickly? Or will it be the 2016 decision to revert to the old turquoise ‘clover leaf’ logo, a decision which I’d call an exercise in de-branding?

You know, seeing the old logo back in my local store, I have a horrible feeling that it may be the latter.

Member democracy and the Co-operative Group

Let’s talk a little about the current ballot papers which have gone out to Co-operative Group members, or at least to those who are eligible to vote (those members who have spent £250 or more in the last financial year or patronised other Group-related businesses to a comparable extent).

Firstly, this is an absolutely enormous step forward in bringing proper member engagement and an element of member control to the Group, Britain’s largest coop and (in 2014) the 27th largest coop in the world. Compared with the previous arcane procedures, this represents a transformation.

I have – naturally enough – some criticisms. Very little preparatory work was done to get members to expect these ballot forms, and the ballots themselves are complicated. I suspect that many members will give up. That’s a pity.

It’s frustrating to be able to vote yes or no to a motion reducing Group political donations from £1m to £750,000 – with a ‘no’ vote meaning that no political donations will be possible at all. I do however understand the commercial context in which this motion was drafted.

We have the opportunity to vote yes or no for the independent non-executive directorships, but that’s all. There are the same number of candidates as places. That’s not great. There is, however (and unlike last year), a genuine election this year for the two Member Nominated Directors.

I am not at all sure that the elections for regional delegates to the Members’ Council should have been by transferable vote: it’s almost impossible to rank candidates meaningfully when you know very little about them, and in this context transferable voting seems to me a voting system which is paradoxically less democratic than a simple ‘put X against up to X candidates’ ballot paper.

But it’s early days yet. This year’s elections are a start. It’s primarily the job now of the Members’ Council to build on this start.

Workers coops get it together at their get-together

The future of the British cooperative movement was to be found in a scout camp site in Staffordshire this weekend.

Well, I’m exaggerating. But nevertheless this year’s workers coop gathering which took place under canvas on the outskirts of Stone was a lively affair, primarily made up of people from the demographic that we’re supposed to call the ‘millennials generation’. Or in other words, people a lot younger than me.

Workers coops have historically tended to be at the cutting edge of cooperation, and certainly the weekend suggested that the radicalism is still there, in terms of both politics and ways of organising collectively.

My contribution was to lead a workshop on the very early history of workers coops (‘productive coops’) in Britain, based on my recent research. Lots of questions, lots of discussion and afterwards I was rewarded with a  tasty meal of vegan rissole and salad (the ingredients kindly donated by workers coops in the food business).

Never write off cooperatives as yesterday’s news.