The times are long gone when businesses would force their product offering upon us. Nowadays, the overabundance of available goods and services has reversed the trade winds. Consumers have choices and they are now leading the market, pushing businesses to compete and to contend with strategies to pique their interest and attract their sympathy. Plugged into the Net and replete with an enormous amount of information, savvy consumers are becoming very demanding and generating new trends. No longer content with purchasing a product: they now want to know the product’s history. Where there once was a business-client relationship based on transactional logic, the scales are now tipping towards a relational logic. Where does this product come from? What kind of company is this? Who are the people leading this business? There are so many questions that can now influence a purchasing decision. The world of marketing has been turned upside down: they once boasted the advantages and benefits of the product to be sold, now, businesses tend to tell their story and share their value system.
At this point, there is nothing novel about this approach for cooperatives. Nothing at all – in principle! Cooperatives are designed to meet the needs of its members and their mission is one of education, therefore we could believe that cooperative enterprises would naturally value a relational approach where they provide consumers with tons of information about their particular status, and in doing so they would focus on the product’s less visible features. However, cooperatives have often kept their identity quiet and adopted a marketing style that was comparable to that of their competitors. But times have changed and we are now appreciating how the cooperative make-up affords it a valuable position, a position that we would be foolish not to take advantage of! It’s especially obvious on the other side of the ocean, in Europe.
Coop de France is the federation of French agricultural cooperatives. It developed the Agri-Confiance certification, a three-party pledge (connecting farmers, the cooperative and the industrial entity) that guarantees consumers a full history of the product offering. Starting with the farmers’ cultivation practices up to and including the product’s processing procedures in the plant, Agri-Confiance is an exclusive promise made by French cooperatives to consumers and it is based on stringent environmental standards. When a product is given Agri-Confiance certification, it also provides it with a clear position featuring its geographic roots, its cooperative allegiance and a reduction of its environmental footprint.
Another interesting case is that of the French agricultural input cooperative, Invivo. Through its Gamm vert subsidiary it has launched an endeavour appealing to nature lovers to provide them with friendly access to agricultural know-how. It’s a hyphen concept liking the land to the rural urban community through a retail environment that encompasses garden, pet store and boutique-type store featuring local products. There are a lot of signs throughout the store aisles to maintain a feeling of proximity with customers and to remind them of its expertise in the field and is also a pledge of authenticity. The company is the product of agricultural cooperation and has made it its spearhead: the company entices agronomists with its motto “We know how to read your land”.
And now let’s have a look at The Co-op Bank. This is a cooperative bank in the United Kingdom that shares The Co-operative banner with other English cooperative sectors. Over there, cooperation is a way of life. They invest a lot to educate consumers about the cooperative difference and tempt them into becoming members. Co-op Bank focuses on an exemplary ethical policy to retain customer loyalty. Since 1992, it has refused business to the equivalent of 900 million pounds ($1.6 billion CAN) because they contradicted the bank’s ethical stand. Wow! They’re serious. How does it make sure it doesn’t lose any players with such categorical decisions? Simple: it encourages them to take part in developing policies through electronic voting. In short, the users themselves are responsible for such high standards. They wanted an ethical bank and they found it.
The truth is that positioning is a strategic element in business. How far do we want to go with our customers? How will we advise them, anticipate their wants and desires and win their trust? How will we develop the proximity that will make them loyal? It seems obvious to me that in cooperation, we already have this unique advantage of connection to our customers through their membership. Proximity is in our nature. But do we really know how to take full advantage of this unique feature that is our own? Now that’s something to think about!