Communicating "Co-op"

Membership is at the heart of cooperation. Cooperative membership is the driving force for an alternative economic system predicated upon user ownership and benefit. It's part and parcel of the big picture of cooperation. But what's also true is how little many members themselves actually understand it. This is due to two basic factors: how well we communicate the co-op message and how people actually synthesize it.

A lack of focus on quality member education can result in many problems for cooperators: board confusion with their role in the co-op; poor membership recruitment and retention; and uninformed staff, members, and customers. All of these things can have an effect on a co-op's bottom line as a thriving community enterprise, although hard to establish or quantify as a direct result of poor co-op education.

There has long been a need to address these issues, as well as a need to incorporate membership education as a core strategy for the long-term survival and robustness of food cooperatives. This need became most apparent when a group of cooperators working in the areas of member services and marketing were called upon to help a startup co-op in the Northeast (River Valley Market, located in Northampton, Massachusetts) communicate the co-op message.

Quality membership education is a core strategy for the long-term survival and robustness of food cooperatives.

This group of cooperators dubbed themselves the "CoCoMaMas," which stands for Common Cooperative Membership and Marketing Association. One of the CoCoMaMas, Rosemary Fifeld, director of education and member services at Hanover Co-op in Hanover, New Hampshire, said, "As a result of the whole group helping River Valley Market, we ended up coming up with our own best practices in member education." The work with the start-up co-op was so energizing for the group, she said, "we wanted more people involved when we saw how much we got out of it." The group decided to take the show on the road and in June sent out a letter inviting all co-ops to participate.

This invitation culminated in September 2002 in member services and marketing personnel from food co-ops around the country convening in St. Paul, Minn. for the "Let's Share Our Abundant Resources" (SOAR) conference sponsored by the CoCoMaMas, Cooperative Development Services, and the National Cooperative Grocers Association. The combination of workshops, plenary sessions, breakout sessions, and resource sharing groups was well received, and much of the information shared will help individual co-ops with their membership and marketing programs. It also furthered the dialogue about what a national food co-op identity might look like and generated a lot of enthusiasm for a revisioning of cooperative and consumer education.

The conference offered a unique opportunity to focus in depth on co-op member and marketing best practices and perhaps was the first time some of these practices have been codified for food co-op membership and marketing directors at large. Three workshops were offered: "Co-op Education," led by Fifield; "Marketing and Community Relations," led by Lisa Malmarowski (Outpost Natural Foods); and "Membership Programs: Equity, Benefits, and Administration," led by Elizabeth Archerd (Wedge). Each workshop was offered three times, allowing participants to attend them all and build on what had been discussed in the prior workshops. The result is a potent tool for co-op educators. The conference made a huge contribution toward defining best practices for member education, tools that help co-ops quantify and structure their education programs.

Most people understand that within our customer base there is a range of levels of interest in co-op membership. However, it is important to identify operationally the "stages" and how to best prepare the message for the intended audience. There are basically three stages of membership education: before joining, upon joining, and ongoing education that sustains a member's interest in the co-op.

Best practices /
1: potential members

How does the co-op capitalize upon the curiosity of potential members? Primary tools include:

  • one-on-one contact (welcoming, inclusive, accessible);
  • well-trained cashiers (enthusiastic, short "rap");
  • signage (co-op mission, welcoming message to shoppers);
  • professional materials (informative brochure);
  • designated display (special area dedicated to membership).

Fifield noted that the "before joining" stage is perhaps most fundamental and that conveying the right message is challenging. Some of the most effective membership marketing involves one-on-one contact by well-trained staff. What people say to customers about joining the co-op -- and how they say it -- makes all the difference.

"Training staff to give quick answers to questions about something they may not understand very well is the biggest challenge," Fifield said. At Hanover Co-op, they want to revise their recruitment tactics to take the focus off economic benefits and stress community ownership. A best practice in this scenario requires all of the above tools plus an institutional recognition of the importance of all-staff co-op education. Staff is often the most powerful conduit for the messages that take hold in the mind of the consumer.

Every co-op needs a short, 30-second answer that all staff can use comfortably to respond to membership inquiries. Staff should gauge the potential member's receptivity before giving more verbal information. And always be sure people know they are welcome to shop no matter what they decide about joining.

2: Welcome mat

The joining process, on the other hand, is the time when the rights and responsibilities of membership can be explained. It's the co-op's opportunity to roll out the welcome mat and help engender a sense of belonging. Best practices for doing this include:

  • an owner's guide or new member packet (high quality printed materials);
  • follow-up phone call;
  • new member orientation.

If a co-op is short on resources, without a membership education program, or needs direction on where to start, Fifield suggested concentrating efforts on materials the co-op gives people when they join. "What you need most is a new member guide that explains everything they need to know about the co-op, including benefits. You also could do a condensed version to hand out to the curious."

3: Ongoing education

Ongoing educational efforts involve building and sustaining interest in the co-op. As a best practice, remember that first and foremost the co-op should be a good place to shop. In addition, co-op membership has got to have meaning. It is at this stage that co-ops may be shortchanging the work they do. As well as communicating the services co-ops offer, co-op education lets people know about all the good work the co-op is doing on their behalf. This includes being able to:

  • communicate intangible benefits of belonging to a co-op;
  • make the human connection (the co-op difference is often as much felt as it is intellectualized);
  • demonstrate how members influence the co-op.

On the part of the organization this takes an awareness of strategic communications in all written and verbal communication, be it staff, advertisements, brochures, or newsletters. "We want people to know we are more than a place to buy groceries," said Fifield. "We're an institution."

As mass-market chains increasingly offer similar products and services, cooperative values are a logical place to focus the educational and marketing efforts of food co-ops. Our marketing advantage is clearly "co-op." It is the one thing that differentiates our food co-ops from many competitors. That the co-op is perceived as an institution is a feat of skillful education and marketing savvy -- and an area some co-ops have yet to capitalize on.

There is no mass market in the traditional sense anymore. Looking at "healthy lifestyle" as a "cultural brand" gives a more accurate picture of our potential customer base.

Co-op as brand identity

If "co-op" is our marketing advantage, how do we capitalize even further on that? This question was addressed at SOAR by Robynn Shrader, executive director of National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), who presented findings from research that NCGA conducted on a potential private-label branding project. The results changed NCGA's approach -- the organization is now looking at how co-ops could formalize "co-op" as a brand identity on a national level. This development dovetails nicely with the suggested best practices for co-op education put forth by the CoCoMaMas.

When NCGA decided to look into a private-label program over a year ago, its inquiries raised a lot of concerns based on the results of a study conducted by The Hartman Group. Consumers polled were not crazy about a co-op private label, and retailers felt challenged by logistical issues involved in launching such a program. Consumers in The Hartman Group's study felt "co-op" represented so much more than groceries and included lifestyle values like community. "The research really helped to guide our new strategy," said Shrader. "The consumer expects more of a co-op than any other natural food retailer. Co-ops have more authenticity, are seen as something you can have faith in."

Current consumer shopping patterns support this perception. The Hartman Group's research confirms the hypothesis that people seek an authentic shopping experience that supports their idea of community and family. There is no mass market in the traditional sense anymore; there are now niche markets that vary in size, placing people on a continuum of life stages or life experiences.

Under this approach, looking at "healthy lifestyle" as a "cultural brand" gives a more accurate picture of our current and potential customer base. This is assessed by gauging who is in the "core" of a healthy lifestyle, the "mid-level," or the "periphery." It's not all about demographics like income level, geography, or education. Here's an overview of what kind of consumers fall into which category:

  • core: buys organic, uses natural cleaning products, educated about food issues, may belong to a co-op; represents 12% of the natural foods market share;
  • mid-level: knows some things about natural foods products, tries to make healthier choices for self or family; represents 72% of natural foods market share;
  • periphery: may regularly exercise, sees some benefit to health food, and may dabble in natural foods; represents 15% of natural foods market share.

Clearly the mid-level consumer represents the greatest opportunity for growth in the food co-op sector. Historically, many of our education and marketing efforts have been geared toward the core consumer. In order to expand our opportunities for growth, we need to address mid-level consumer perceptions of our co-ops and build from the strength and history of our movement. In some cases, in order to reach people in all phases of their healthy lifestyle journey, we need to break the "fundamentalist barriers" to accessibility that our co-ops have erected.

NCGA's work to date shows that communicating the co-op advantage could best be achieved by building a national brand identity unique to co-ops -- one based on the positive co-op experience that sets us apart from our competitors. So what is "co-op turf" in the marketplace? It's not price. It's those things we already do well: valuable consumer education, honesty, genuine support of local producers, and authentic concern for community. These are exactly the things the healthy lifestyle consumer expresses a desire to support.

The next phase of NCGA's work involves completing the research they are currently doing, drawing some conclusions about it, and beginning to plan what a national co-op brand strategy may look like. This will certainly involve more dialogue among co-ops about how this could be achieved. "We want to enhance and complement what is unique about our co-ops, so we'll need to assess our ideas for compatibility in individual stores. Branding is your personality in the marketplace, and that is determined by store vision and mission," said Shrader. Collaborating with other co-ops nationally on a co-op brand will help co-ops communicate who they are more effectively.

Shrader noted things co-ops can begin to do to be prepared to participate in the process. "Begin looking at your identity. What is your unique market position? Also, evaluate the marketing efforts you do based on the three tenets of a cultural brand: authenticity, experience, and products and services," she said. These also can be addressed through co-op education and best practices.

Co-ops often don't have a sense of importance of what we are about, what our market position means in being the keepers of an important co-op message about social and economic parity. It's time we devote more resources to a higher level of commitment to spreading the co-op message. It's what our co-ops deserve, and our ability to survive and thrive into the future depends

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