Vive la différence!
November 2006
Those who travel will tell you: nothing looks more like a big city than another big city. In Tokyo as in Shanghai, downtown skyscrapers have taken over the urban landscape leaving in their shadow heritage buildings that at one time proudly exhibited their cultural differences. From Moscow to Dakar the notorious Big Mac is the same the world over. Products created by local artisans, once authentic and unique, are now but one of a long series and are sold just about everywhere… and sometimes at your neighbourhood dollar store. Although we live in the golden age of communications, one of its perverse effects has started to peek through: since we are all connected with each other, we are literally being pulled into a distressing standardization of the world as we know it. A world of sameness.

Thank goodness for packets of resistance. Mankind has always sought to be different, and increasingly it is affirming its uniqueness through choice, specifically product choices. We shouldn’t be surprised: spices are being taken away from this, colours taken away from that, and thanks to a desire to please as many people as possible, the final product is often tasteless, flavourless, odourless… and sadly very boring. In short, nothing to inspire greatness. Nowadays, consumers are looking for something different, representational, an authentic way of living or, something as simple as a sense of meaning to their product choices. Consumers feel a certain level of pride as they choose to adopt products and their distinctive values. And this represents a interesting business opportunity for companies ready to provide a unique consumer experience.

How can cooperatives distinguish themselves in such an era? Simple: gamble on our distinctive nature. Conditions seem perfect for emphasizing what makes us distinctive. The characteristics of a cooperative, too often perceived as limitations, are now considered attractive from a consumer relationship point of view. Take the cooperative’s roots in its surrounding environment for example. If there is truth in the notion that those roots do not allow it the same level of mobility as its competitors, it does however provide it with a preferred contact and relationship with its consumers. The cooperative is therefore better equipped to know their needs and offer them what they are seeking. Another example is the cooperative’s social mission, it also represents a distinctive advantage. Obviously, this aspect makes the management process more complicated but what a great opportunity to present consumers with meaningful purchases.

The truth is, if human beings are truly at the heart of the cooperative’s concerns, it seems natural that it should call upon its members, employees and other partners and draw from the creativity and imagination that make innovation possible within the business. If there is one criteria for success that is applauded by the business community, it is definitely innovation. Innovation is not only about developing new products. Innovation can be expressed in a variety of ways. Innovation is guaranteeing a production method, it is providing a specific service, being associated with a cause or even getting back to old-fashioned practices to add value to a product. Aren’t we always seeing “old fashioned” being used as a distinctive marking?

Innovation can also be translated into offering the community a place to meet. Our cooperatives, deeply rooted in their regions, already have the necessary infrastructure for such a mission. Why couldn’t they become a meeting place where discussions, sharing and networking could take center stage, where neighbours could get together and discover their common identities? Why couldn’t cooperatives adopt this persona and become a public meeting ground that is warm, friendly and inviting just like the town church hall used to be?

There are so many great opportunities out there for businesses that want to set themselves apart. And I still believe that our cooperatives are perfectly equipped to provide a unique experience. They have the required qualities to emphasize a cultural heritage and become a window on their communities, regions, countries. We need to stop seeing our differences as burdens. Quite the opposite, our differences provide us with a means to display the richness and wealth of men and women everywhere. Vive la différence!

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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