Anthony Murray - Let’s market the co-operative advantage

Jul 17, 2015

Governments, non-governmental organisations and policymakers have been trumping the act of co-operation in recent years. Developing countries are backing co-operatives as a means to working together to increase growth and production. For example, when looking ahead to potential food shortages in future, bringing farmers together into co-ops is seen as a solution.

But there are still examples of discrimination (or misunderstandings) of how the co-operative business model works. Through the work of the International Co-operative Alliance over recent years, we are now on the radar of policymakers.

We already have the ear of some of the highest, most-influential decision makers. For the International Day of Co-operatives, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, said the sector will help the world have a sustainable future. Messages also came from the International Labour Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization.

In terms of policy, all these messages from within the UN hinted that co-operatives may be a part of its development agenda due to be decided by the end of the year. This could be the year that co-operatives are legitimised even further.

But at the grassroots, what can we do to further push the co-op message?

Looking at this year’s International Day and Co-operatives Fortnight – how many co-operatives celebrated? And actually, is celebration the right word?

Ultimately co-operatives are a business, so should we (dare I say) be looking at our special celebrations from a more commercial perspective?

Our approach is quite religious – the sector shows its difference by doing good in the community and highlighting one or more of its values. But what else could our best marketing people do to unite the sector?

I think it’s fair to say many co-op marketing managers gloss over the International Day and do not see the business – or community – advantage of highlighting the day.

In the private business world, joint marketing initiatives bring together common interests. We call it co-operation between co-operatives.

Cross-marketing/cross-selling is a weak area within the movement.

But look at Small Business Saturday – held each December – which unites millions of businesses. A joint campaign with one message, promoting the commercial advantage of shopping local.

Little co-op ecosystems do happen though. The Phone Co-op sells sim cards in Co-operative Food stores; likewise Revolver Coffee is sold in some stores too. Some co-op stores buy local food from co-op producers. But we don’t shout about it enough.

In the commercial world, successful co-marketing initiatives look at the business value too, such as Apple teaming up Nike to promote both their products to runners.

We need our co-op marketing experts to come together, regularly, to figure out what works best for them, their co-ops and customer/members, pooling this knowledge to promote the co-operative difference in an ongoing, relevant way.