Does the Co-op really care about what the public thinks - or is it just a PR stunt?

The Co-op is asking the public about its future strategy
The Co-op is asking the public about its future strategy

As the Co-operative Group opens up its strategy to the public, retail specialist Kate Jones, director of Mash Strategy, analyses whether this is a pure PR stunt - or if the Co-op really cares.

On the face of it, asking the public to shape your strategy seems an unusual step for a major retailer to take. It isn’t something you imagine Tesco or Sainsbury’s would do, although we know that they are constantly monitoring and measuring consumer attitudes like a barometer and we might well wish they would listen to our feedback. So why does this feel different, almost gauche?

Are we to believe this transparent honesty or, cynically, is it just a PR stunt to assist the recovery from recent scandals?

This is a very public move, very open - almost embarrassingly so. This shouldn’t feel out of place - yet it does

Heart on its sleeve

First off it is very public. Very open - almost embarrassingly so. In an age of authenticity and having a two-way dialogue with the consumer, this shouldn’t feel out of place – yet it does. But we have to remember the Co-op just isn’t like other organisations.

The Co-op is exactly what is says on the tin, a co-operative. It is membership based, so a consensus gathering process like this actually is something they do regularly, only with members not consumers. The only difference this time is that they are looking outside the organisation itself and asking the public. Brave and different but very true to the Co-op and Co-op values. 

Let’s not forget that the Co-op is delightfully out of step with the rest of the retail pack. This is the organisation that brought Fairtrade to the UK retail arena, the organisation that has swept the board with CSR awards, it is the brand that people can trust. It was the birthplace of a new way of doing business.

So yes, this is public and a little odd, but if anyone has it in their DNA to do it, the Co-op does.

Shock and scandal

The Co-op has never ever, in more 150 years history, been associated with any kind of scandal. Imagine the absolute shock it must be in

The next thing to think about is that until last year, the Co-op has never ever, in more 150 years history, been associated with any kind of scandal. Imagine the absolute shock that the business must be in – a business that has trust at the very core and seeks to do business as ethically as possible. What else could it do but hold its hands up and ask for forgiveness? 

In the age of banks fixing Libor rates and traders gambling away our pensions, the Co-op appears to be the only institution to undertake such an act of penance, to step up and really take responsibility.

For this alone we should be heralding the Co-op as it may just start a new era of honesty and trust.

Add to this a new CEO. The appointment of Euan Sutherland less than a year ago marks the first time in what must be 50 years that an "outsider" is at the helm. The way the business is run and structured may be under new scrutiny and have a fresh perspective, but the Co-op has and always will be about consensus.

Whatever changes Mr Sutherland may wish to make or "outside" retail practices that could step change the organisation, will have to have full consensus and validation. Asking the consumers could be the best way to proceed, maybe even modernise with full permission.

Opening up

Authenticity in a brand is about the most important value it can have

The real question the Co-op needs to ask is along the lines of: what is a co-operative in the 21st century and why does it matter and to whom?

It feels like a very clear message to the world that Co-op is not about to change its ethical stance or become something different, but it is full of intent to be better, more open, more in-tune and more in-step. More fit for purpose if you like – a champion of the people run the way the people want it.

All this leads me to believe that the Co-op really does care. For me authenticity in a brand is about the most important value it can have. 

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