The International Co-operative Alliance has developed a global cooperative identity that ALL co-operatives can align with and which differentiates us from other forms of business. The Co-operative Marque and .coop domain names are the symbols of the global co-op movement and of our collective identity; Together they demonstrate our unity of purpose.
In a world suffering from a deficit of democratic representation and from short-termism, co-operatives demonstrate how business can be done not only differently, but better – not only for their own benefit, but also for the worlds. However, to spread this valuable message, there must be clarity as to how co-operatives are to be defined and distinguished. This is important for the co-operative sector itself, in creating a powerful sense of shared identity; but it is also important that an identifiable co-operative message or “brand” is projected, which differentiates this form of business.
The market place for ‘social’ or ‘ethical’ business is a crowded one. ‘Corporate social responsibility’ and ‘social enterprise’ are two examples of how privately owned business models have been re-imagined or re-branded, for purposes beyond the pursuit of profit maximization. The so-called “ethical corporation” and other more sincere enterprises are already using the language and messages of co-operatives. How do co-operatives distinguish themselves in this context? How do they second guess and outpace investor-owned corporations?
A great advantage that co-operatives possess is having the Co-operative Principles. Co-operatives don’t simply appear different, thanks to some image makeover – they fundamentally are different. Their abiding values of participation and sustainability are not just bolted on to a conventional business model, but structure how they are owned, governed, managed and evaluated. With consumers increasingly cynical about ethical ‘green-washing’ of corporate brands, co-operatives have an authenticity that no other ethical business model can match.
Those involved in the co-operative sector may argue that there is no question about what constitutes a co-operative, by pointing to the ICA Statement on the Co-operative Identity as an answer. However, the extent to which the Co-operative Principles are applied or not varies greatly from one jurisdiction and legal system to another. So there are many for whom the Co-operative Principles do not offer adequate explanation or clarity of definition. This includes regulators and policy-makers, a number of whom are seeking guidance on how to distinguish an ‘authentic’ co-operative from an ‘inauthentic’ one, and are concerned that co-operative regulations are being ‘gamed’ as a means of seeking market-place advantages and avoiding transparency or competition. It also includes the broader public of potential members and younger people, who might be attracted to a sector that is ethical and participatory, but whose message sometimes appears indistinct in a crowded field, and uses language which does not always resonate. A sector, which is fundamentally open source, is disruptive in the market place, and is independent of the establishment, needs to learn to communicate those features strongly to people who might feel instinctively drawn to them.
The goal is to build the co-operative message and secure the co-operative identity, to secure moral economic authority and “better business” status for co-operatives. It is important to distinguish between ‘identity’ and ‘message’. Broadly speaking, ‘identity’ is the meaning of co-operatives for the sector itself and its members, how it recognizes itself when looking in the mirror; ‘message” is the way in which the identity of co-operatives is communicated and projected to the outside world, through education, the provision of information, marketing, logos and other forms of engagement with non-members.
The word more commonly used to denote message is “brand”, and within the co-operatives sector people use it as a shorthand and talk about building the co-operative “brand”. However the term “brand” is not used with any enthusiasm in this context, because of its association with private intellectual property rights, which provide a means to prevent use except where appropriate payment is made to the owner of the rights. In a more popular sense “brand” is rather more to do with superficial image denoting attributes attractive to consumers. Neither of these is consistent with a co-operative sector that has a strong belief in longer-lasting values, and which wishes to encourage the wide-spread use of the co-operative idea which is available without charge to those who wish to follow its principles.
Having said that, the co-operative sector has a legitimate interest in seeking to protect the integrity of the “co-operative” word so it is not misused. The ability to do this varies between jurisdictions, and for present purposes the primary focus is on projecting an appropriate message of what is denoted by “co-operative” to a world which is largely ignorant of what it stands for. As follows from the two previous chapters, the Blueprint seeks to project both participation and sustainability through the co-operative message.
The UN International Year of Co-operatives and its accompanying logo demonstrate the positive potential of providing a single differentiating message for the co-operative sector that can be carried across multiple spheres. The .coop domain name also provides an opportunity for clear differentiation here.
Co-operatives need a more sharply articulated message so that people are more aware of what they are choosing when faced with the option between a co-operative, an investor, or privately owned business.
What You Can Do
Use the Marque and your .coop domain and join thousands of similar organizations around the world giving greater visibility to your co-operative and strengthening our distinct model of enterprise. Ensure your whole identity is consistent and demonstrate your commitment to furthering the global o-operative movement!
Apply for the Co-operative Marque and a .coop domain at www.identity.coop.