How digital is helping the Co-op rediscover its soul

By Eliza Williams

The Co-op’s new co-working space in The Federation in Manchester, which is being occupied by a mix of individuals, start-ups and digital businesses

If you want to know what’s happening at the Co-op these days, it’s best to start by looking at the company’s blog. The home page at the site is packed with stories. Some are what you might expect from a major retailer: the latest article is about a new spicy gin that the brand is launching in the autumn, and a second piece celebrates the Co-op Legal Services team’s recent charitable endeavours. But read on, and things get more serious.

The Federation in Manchester, a Co-op owned building that houses the company’s digital team, as well as an events space and a co-working space, occupied by a range of individuals and small companies external to the Co-op but which share its values

In one piece, Nick Croft, President of the National Members’ Council, talks in detail about how the Co-op is taking on board concerns that its members have raised about the Group advertising in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun. Croft’s piece goes well beyond lip service to the issue, instead laying out the concerns and the various ways that the Co-op is responding, which includes placing ads in the titles that “highlight our belief in the importance of equality of rights, the need to campaign for social change and the importance of global solidarity”.

Other articles thoughtfully tackle sensitive subjects such as loneliness and death, including an interesting report on how we might like loved ones to handle our death on social media (apparently one fifth of adults would like their death announced on these channels, though 45% wouldn’t). There are also reports on core Co-op issues such as Fairtrade and Modern Slavery. The result is a rich mix of news, ideas and advice, all of which come together to give the impression of a company keen to embrace its audience and engage in a dialogue about the issues that matter to them.

Step from here over to the separate Co-op Digital Blog and you can immediately dive deeper into the organisation’s work. Here the Group’s digital team blogs on what approaches they are taking within the company, how they doing it, and what is working, or not. Research styles, results and ‘stuff we learnt’ are all laid out to be read by anyone. Mistakes and blind alleys are reported on as much as successes. The accessible, open style is immediately appealing and the articles are refreshingly jargon free. While this may be typical behaviour for a tech start up, we are so used to corporate culture hiding behind confusing language or stock phrases, that Co-op’s frankness here is, well, pretty startling.

The various blogs are some of the most significant signals that the Co-op has made dramatic change in the past two years, following the financial crisis and major restructuring at the company in 2013-14.

A store front in Manchester showing the Co-op’s rebrand (by design studio North)in action. In 2016, the Group returned to its distinctive cloverleaf logo, first designed in 1968

“Co-op has been through a very turbulent couple of years,” agrees Gail Lyon, Head of Digital Engagement at the Group. “The first priority if you’re very close to losing a business, you’ve got to rescue it. Richard Pennycook [who joined Co-op in 2013 as CFO, later becoming CEO in 2014 before leaving in March this year] was really instrumental in fixing the problems that years and years of mismanagement had led to. That involved looking at what it is to be the Co-op and how that’s unique. The conversation started to become about in what ways we can be radical and pioneering.”

Co-op has been through a very turbulent couple of years. The first priority if you’re very close to losing a business, you’ve got to rescue it

In October 2015, a team previously employed at the Government Digital Service, including Mike Bracken, Ben Terrett, Mat Wall, Russell Davies and Tom Loosemore arrived, with the aim, Bracken told Design Week at the time, of turning the Co-op into a “world-leading digital player”.

“A lot of brilliant talent was injected into the organisation at a time when we really, really needed it,” says Lyon. “The old Co-op had perhaps got a bit arrogant. It was a wake up call. It was very exciting because it did lead to the point where people saw the need for social, it opened everyone’s eyes. When I joined the b organisation it was very, very conservative – ‘no comment’ was the culture. Whereas using social and digital as a tool you can actually change people’s perception and help people see what you’re doing.”

For Terrett, the initial draw to join the Co-op was for its ethical heritage as well as the huge digital opportunity on offer. “Every organisation has ‘values’ in inverted commas, but [few are] living and breathing them,” he says. “And yet here’s the Co-op, where the values are built into the business model in effect…. This ought to be the best business in Britain, really.”

The branding as shown on Co-op bag

Major developments quickly followed at the company, including a well-reported rebrand in spring 2016 by North, which saw the Co-op return to its clover leaf logo from 1968, applied in smart new style across packaging and store fronts. The full rollout of the rebrand is expected to be complete by May 2019. Membership was relaunched, with a new ‘5+1′ scheme, where members receive a 5% reward when they purchase Co-op branded products and services, with a further 1% going to a local cause of their choice.

“The project internally was called ‘meaningful membership’, which means literally making membership meaningful,” says Terrett. “Because membership always existed, and it was very meaningful to active members, but to try and attract new members, it was not quite clear. So the plan was to make that mean something.” The relaunch has undoubtedly been a success, with membership levels now standing at almost five million, an increase of over a million following the relaunch.

The Co-op has long been known as a pioneer for ethical values: as well as its work with the Fairtrade Foundation to introduce the Fairtrade Mark in the UK, it introduced nutritional labelling on food packaging and also the use of Braille. The blogs have given the Group the opportunity to share new developments but also expand on the sense of trust and openness already deep in the company’s culture.

Obviously lots of companies have ‘brand values’ and all that stuff, but this is not that – these are the values the organisation was formed on and [wrote] into the constitution they’re much important than brand values

“Obviously lots of companies have ‘brand values’ and all that stuff, but this is not that – these are the values the organisation was formed on and [wrote] into the constitution,” says Terrett. “They’re much important than brand values – people really believe in them. So it’s not a surprise at all that you would say ‘we’re going to start openly talking about our work’ and people go ‘oh, ok, that’s a good idea’.”

“There’s a clash that can happen when a traditional organisation does this, when the instinct is normally to keep things internal and controlled and protect how you’re communicating,” says Lyon. “But actually it’s really helpful.

“There’s a trust there that has to be established. We understand there’s a line but actually very few things that we’re going to say are going to cross that line anyway.”

The digital team is housed over two floors in The Federation, a separate building a few streets from Co-op’s main headquarters in Manchester, with a distinctly less corporate feel. The company has taken the openness that’s been forged by the team into other directions too, with the Group creating an events space for use internally as well as by external companies and organisations, plus a co-working space within the building, with a mix of desks and ‘pods’ on offer. “We’re creating an open digital community and bringing together lots of different types of companies and organisations,” says Claire Lewis, Ventures Director, “from small start-up cooperatives to digital businesses. The idea is to create a community that is aligned to Co-op’s ethical values of openness, honesty, social responsibility and caring for others.”

Another key area of ethical development for the Group is around data. “Our goal is to be the world’s most trusted organisation with data,” says Terrett. “That’s quite a bold ambition but we feel that again it’s your data. If you’re a member, this is your organisation, this is your data, so the onus is on us to look after that and be sensible with it. That involves all kinds of things, from looking at marketing permissions to where we’re storing it. It’s a huge area.”

The Co-op recovery has been in three key stages: the rescue, completed by Spring 2015; rebuild, still ongoing; and renewal, anticipated to begin in earnest in 2018. Terrett and Lyon are understandably reluctant to talk too much about what renewal will involve, largely because it’s not fully clear yet. Mooted ideas of the kind of projects that might happen though are exciting, with speculation on products based around their work with data (“It might be a new product we offer where the terms and conditions are really easy to use or the permissions we ask for are really clear and you can opt in and out of things,” says Terrett), as well as work exploring the provenance of food (“we thought that’s clearly a space that’s interesting for the Co-op, possibly the next Fairtrade,” he continues).

“The Co-op is spun out of the needs of members,” Terrett concludes. “The original food thing wasn’t just somebody saying ‘let’s start a supermarket’. It was ‘these people are basically getting ripped off by other food suppliers so let’s solve that problem’. So what other markets are broken? There are loads of those, but where would cooperation be an advantage? You don’t need to talk for very long for some of those areas to start to become obvious.”

And whatever happens, we’ll undoubtedly be able to read all about it over on the Co-op blogs. /

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