Co-op looks for brand purpose as it polls public on its future

The Co-operative Group is hoping its decision to poll the public on its future strategy will shed light on what its purpose should be and help frame its marketing message in the future following a tumultuous 2013. The #Haveyoursay campaign asks people to complete an online survey to canvass opinion on its structure, values and services, specifically asking what the Co-op “means to people now and in the future”.

Video: The Co-op is asking people to fill out an online survey to help shape its future strategy.

The move comes after a disastrous last year. It was forced to pull out of a deal to buy 630 bank branches from Lloyds after admitting to a £1.5bn hole in its finances. Then Paul Flowers, the chairman of the Co-op Bank, was forced to resign over allegations about his private life.

The negative headlines had a severe impact on Co-op Bank’s brand reputation. Figures from YouGov’s Brand Index show that its “Buzz” score, a measure of the positive and negative things said about a brand, fell from 6.5 a year ago to -20.8 on 16 February.

Other metrics including “Impression”, “Reputation” and “Quality” are down as well and its supermarket business has felt the impact, with its buzz, reputation and impression scores all falling over the past year.

Speaking to Marketing Week, the Co-op Group’s marketing director Gill Barr admits that the events of the last year have hit the company’s reputation but claims the brand has been remarkably resilient and is still in “pretty good shape”. She believes the Co-op has a “special place” in the affections of UK consumers that it now wants to draw on with the #Haveyoursay campaign.

“We are doing this because being a co-operative is to be a different kind of business. This is an organisation that is owned by its members so there is a very different relationship there. Instead of management dictating to an audience what the future is going to be we will listen,” she says.

Barr says the online survey is an opportunity for the Co-op to develop a unified positioning across the business, which she believes has so far been missing. This will then inform its communications and marketing strategy going forward.

“The purpose of The Co-operative Group has not been clear enough. As a result of today’s announcement we will get some real colour on where the purpose of the Group should be. This will be the thing that makes us distinctive from anyone else out there,” she adds.

However, Sam Noble, chief strategy officer at iris Worldwide which has worked on crowdsourcing projects for Adidas and Heineken says the Co-op is running a risk by involving the public so heavily.

“Harnessing the power of participation is a real art and essentially a balancing act.

“There’s something in the execution of [the Co-op’s] strategy that smacks a bit of panic and desperation. Sure, gather opinion about how to better deliver on your commitment to customers and society as a whole, but does to have to be such an explicit exercise? In this instance it feels more like a reaction exercise motivated by reputation management than a progressive and proactive initiative for the good of the consumer.”

Stuart Roper, senior lecturer in marketing at Manchester Business School, also cautions that the move could lead to a dilution of the Co-op’s “strong identity” as many customers will have little idea of its history or founding philosophy.

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