Mutual, co-operative, friendly – what’s in a name?

The Mutual Life Assurance Society of the Cape of Good Hope was established in 1845 in South Africa as an insurance mutual. It became known over the years as ‘the old mutual’ and this in turn became its trading name. That was smart marketing – after all, it always helps to see yourself in ways that are in line with how your customers want to see you.

But in 1999, The Old Mutual demutualised. It was listed on on the London, Johannesburg, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Namibian Stock Exchanges and established its Head Office in London. It is now one of the FTSE100, one of the largest listed companies in the UK.

So what happened with the name? There is no protection of the term ‘mutual’, no regulator to question it or campaign group then to challenge the continued use of the name. Anyway, the term ‘old mutual’ had a multi-million pound brand value and seemed to be neatly consonant with the fact that it was a former mutual and now shareholder owned. So, the name stayed.

The paradox is that the ‘Old Mutual’ would never be renamed as the ‘New PLC’ because, despite the desire to demutualise, there was more financial value to be had for shareholders in suggesting that it had no shareholders – and there were no restraints on them doing so.

The newly re-launched TSB is perhaps a similar example. Lloyds holds the trademark for the name, and good luck to the new venture, but in no way does TSB now add up to a savings bank overseen by a trustee model. It is banking open to customers but run for shareholders.

Closer to the co-operative home, critics might argue that the joint venture of recent years with Thomas Cook and the Co-operative Group, which allowed Co-operative Travel shops to trade in the high street without an underlying co-operative identity fell into the same paradox. Although seen most likely as a temporary strategy, bridging a likely shift into Thomas Cook branding, the interesting thing here was that there was a wider restraint available, as the brand treatment of the name was subject to license and brand guidelines. Even so, the paradox was that while the shift out of co-operative hands may have made sense in commercial terms, the shift away from the name, at least in the short term, did not.

But ownership can change both ways. Nationwide Insurance in the USA opened up to investor-owners in 1997. Ten years later, it bought them out, using member funds, becoming fully mutual again.

So, what’s in a name?

Our names as a sector – mutual, co-operative, friendly, societies – have always been an uplifting and hopeful component of the language of business. The terms have now become brands and, like any brand, while no-one can control how they are always used, guarding their identity, a key part of our work, still matters.

Now and in future, our names need to remain authentic if they are to retain their value.

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3 thoughts on “Mutual, co-operative, friendly – what’s in a name?

  1. Surprised you did not reiterate the deliberate misuse and attendant misinformation by the current government of the term “mutual” where it has brought in private equity with a veneer of employee participation for some former civil service units. I wonder why? This needs to be attacked over and over again

  2. Good as far as it goes. Need you absorb so much business babble in your discourse. Cooperatives and mutuals are often ( not always) seen as enterprises based on certain principles hopefully equitable, so they need principles matched with effective practice and a virtue in this regard is engaged membership be it worker, customer or whatever.
    Many big coops and mutuals have lost their way and supinely taken on practices unfiltered from the capitalist corporate sector. For example no commitment to a wage solidarity policy, with a base on living wage and a human scale differential ratio perhaps 10:1 . Nor do they encourage active membership most of these mutual , coops , credit unions are run by narrow coteries and poorly relate to outsiders let alone their members.
    The democratic quality of these enterprises need revitalizing. The internet may help.
    These enterprises often grew at a time where people associated more directly, i.e chapel and were smaller and more local. Work needs to be done, but many benefits might be an outcome, one being that they have a clear identity, incorporating principles and viable practice so not needing “branding”.

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