Today is International Coops Day – the 92nd year it has been held and the 20th sponsored by the United Nations (UN) – and the close of the 2014 UK Co-operatives Fortnight.
It seems a good day to tell the story of how we developed the Co-operative Marque. Eight months after launching it in South Africa, 740 co-operative businesses have signed up to use the Marque. Those businesses come from 70 countries.
This is going to be big.
And this is how we did it…
Co-operatives have around one billion members worldwide, but most are local or national rather than businesses that operate across borders. 2012, the UN International Year of Co-operatives, gave us a taste for coming together.
One of the ideas for follow-up, to give the International Co-operative Alliance more of profile and impact, was to develop an identity mark that was uniquely co-operative. While the image of a rainbow had been the symbol of the Alliance since 1921, it didn’t do what we wanted to achieve, which was to have something to unify the movement, that was business-like, contemporary and able to work across borders. As Chair of the Alliance Communications Committee, a small network of diverse communicators from across the world, the idea came back to me like a boomerang as we were given the mandate to lead this.
In response to our brief, sent to design agencies around the world, we had presentations from those keen to pitch for the work. The one we chose was an agency which had been working, in effect, on the same idea for many years, without the entry point to make it work. This was the UK worker co-operative, Calverts with a team led by Sion Whellens operating in partnership with Argentine designer Sebastian Guerrini and, later, BrandOutLoud, based in The Hague
My hunch was that we wanted something that was not rooted in any one language, but rather a contemporary image that would be drawn from the landscape and heritage of co-operative iconography. So the work started by collecting images of co-ops, as if they were butterflies – or rather bees, birds, sunrise, rainbows, clasped hands, rings, wheat sheaves or pine trees.
With online tools, we could then engage people from across the co-operative sector worldwide in ways that would have been inconceivable just a decade before. The agencies developed a survey, translated into different languages and spread through word of mouth through co-operative networks worldwide. The survey explored what stories people told about co-operation, what it meant to them, what they wanted it to mean to others. What emerged ranged from short testimonies through to extended statements and passionate, poetic narratives.
The survey then offered a series of images, asking people to select which ones best represented their sense of being connected through co-operation, or that were most associated with the co-operative movement.
Over 1,000 people responded, from 86 countries. But what emerged was an insight that turned our first thoughts on their head.
The bad news was that co-operation has largely already been co-opted in design terms. While there were many images that people thought were evocative of co-operation, none were exclusively co-operative. In fact, the logos of so many mainstream business are of images that promise mutuality and co-operation, that you might even that they were all actual mutuals. But, hidden in the survey was our answer.
We asked the question ‘do you think that we should use ‘coop’ or ‘co-op’ to promote our global identity, even though it is not used or understood everywhere?’. The response to this was an overwhelming yes. The very few ‘noes’ we had were in the English language, either concerned on whether there was a hyphen (a Canadian / UK enthusiasm) or whether it would be confused with an enclosure for chickens.
So, while a symbolic image alone wouldn’t be able to express co-operatives in an exclusive way, and while we couldn’t use any other words across the many languages of the world that co-operatives operated in, we could use that one word as a symbol.
With that clarity, Penny Stockham and the team at Calverts set about the design of a marque, drawing on some of the classic imagery, from Belgian postage stamps to the clover leaf imagery of UK retail co-ops. The hyphen or not was solved in the design that brought the two symmetrical ‘o’s together. The result was something that we could all see was us – it reflected us, it represented us.
Alongside this, we found that colours too vary right across the world, when it comes to co-operation, but also in terms of the widely varied cultural associations with each colour. One colour, plum, was chosen as the home colour for the International Co-operative Alliance, which, led then by Nicola Huckerby on communications, changed its own corporate imagery to come into line with the Marque. Six other colours, plus black, made up a palette to offer local choice to fit local needs.
Alongside the visual marque, of course, there is also a more longstanding shared identifier, which is the dot coop domain name, established in 2002. The International Co-operative Alliance, following a gift from Midcounties Co-operative in the UK, combined these as a marketing offer.
Choosing the right domain name helps your online marketing and brand development. Because it’s a .coop you also don’t need to say ‘co-operative’ or ‘co-op’ in your name. For example the East River Electric Power Cooperative uses www.eastriver.coop , which is much stronger, and easier to remember. Corn Belt Power Cooperative uses www.cbpower.coop and Firestorm Cafe & Books uses www.firestorm.coop. A French cooperative has the great name of www.happyculture.coop, as does the UK co-op www.dailybread.coop - and of course, there is http://www.chicken.coop – the Montana Poultry Growers Co-operative
The Co-operative Marque has been used in many different ways, and this can only grow over time.
My favourite is these credit cards from a co-operative bank in Brazil.
The numbers on the take-up of the Marque are below. It will take time, to build awareness but it can do that in an organic way through the contact and rhythms of co-operatives themselves.
The Marque is free to use, with easy to use guidance, but you need to apply to be able to use it – and, naturally enough, it is limited to co-operatives and a few select organisations, such as the UN International Labour Organisation, that are supportive of the sector. If that’s you, please join in.
It is a bold but simple idea that we can use the toolkit of marketing to share the difference around the world that we aim to offer as people-centred businesses.
A symbol of hope, perhaps.