Finding Common Co-op Messages


Sponsors of the Research into Co-op Messages:

Frontier Natural Products Co-op is a consumer co-op, specializing in natural and organic products under the Frontier, Simply Organic, and Aura Cacia brands since 1976. They manufacture and distribute products throughout the United States and Canada.

Humboldt Creamery Association is a farmer cooperative of 62 dairies providing high-quality dairy products to consumers through retail food stores nationwide.

National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) is a business services cooperative for 109 consumer-owned natural food co-ops located throughout the United States.

Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative of over 800 family farms providing high-quality certified organic products to consumers through retail food stores nationwide.

Co-ops have long talked about the potential to increase our visibility by utilizing common and consistent messaging. In late 2006, four cooperative organizations—National Cooperative Grocers Association, Frontier Natural Products Co-op, Humboldt Creamery, and Organic Valley—decided it was time to work together and explore possibilities. We met with a common goal: to develop and research key messages and/or slogans which could be used to build awareness of co-ops and help differentiate products and services offered by both retail and manufacturer food cooperatives.

Though we were only four companies, we were all willing and ready to get started. We believed that if we started the process, others would choose to participate as we went along. We presented the following results of our research at a plenary session during the June 2007 CCMA conference.

The process

Our endeavor included several phases. First, we agreed on the scope of work and chose a creative agency, Livengood/Nowack, through a request-for-proposal process. Working with the agency and a third-party research firm, we compiled and reviewed existing research. Next, to understand current consumer perceptions we conducted new research, through both focus groups and in-depth phone interviews, in a variety of markets. Following the research, we worked with our agency to develop slogans consistent with consumer perceptions and then tested those slogans in additional focus groups.

Research results and recommendations

Our research uncovered many of the same themes that had emerged in previous research:

  • At the top level, core and mid-level consumers share many of the same values; however the degree to which they live these values differs. While mid-level consumers are increasingly aware of organic and natural foods, core consumers remain more committed and informed, and less likely to make choices based on convenience. An interesting discovery was the difference in perceptions core consumers have of themselves (caring, genuine) vs. how they think others perceive them (tree-hugging hippies). They want “co-op” to be a badge they’re proud to wear!
  • “Co-op” as a term has a halo of trust and goodness; much the same way “non-profit” does, but our mid-level consumers do not understand what the specific benefits of co-op might be.
  • On the positive side, consumers believe cooperatives are (or they want them to be) conscientious, progressive, authentic, caring and trustworthy. On the negative side, cooperatively produced items as well as co-op retailers were often perceived as more expensive, not conveniently located, and not easily identified. There was general confusion and lack of understanding around what a “producer co-op” is.
  • While “co-op” doesn’t mean organic, there’s a large overlap in co-op and organic values and interests.
  • For core and mid-level consumers, food is the common denominator. It is the linchpin to good health—for themselves and their families foremost, and then for their communities and the earth. The ability to buy wholesome food from a trusted source speaks much more strongly to mid-level consumers than does any other rational or political motivation to shop co-op.
  • The concept of membership/ownership is a turn-off for many consumers. This is a difficult thing for many of us to hear, let alone accept. But this finding is consistent with prior research. Educating consumers on the benefits of membership and the cooperative model can be a lengthy process and some people shop for years before they are ready to become members or participate at a higher level. Making ownership the basis of external messaging simply does not resonate with mid-level consumers, and is in many cases a barrier. This is not to say that attention should not be given to educating shoppers on co-ops and the benefits of membership. It is to say that membership/ownership is best used in internal messaging because it is not likely to provide mid-level shoppers with a reason to come into our stores.
  • Traditional (not co-op) natural food retailers are sometimes perceived to have values that are similar to co-op values, so consumers shop there in good conscience. This is not surprising; consumers often shop multiple retailers and are constantly seeking ways to validate and justify their choices. The opportunity for co-ops is in delivering a shopping experience that aligns with consumer perceptions and belief systems in an authentic way. Every aspect of our stores needs to reinforce for consumers that they can find great food, that they can trust us to provide service and information, and that we are committed to community both locally and globally.
  • Was there a single message that would tie all of this together, build awareness of co-ops, and help differentiate us in the marketplace? Our agency developed over 30 messages and initially tested nine of those in focus groups. Consumers offered great insight, and, based on their feedback, we refined and tested four new messages.
  • Although our hope was that we’d have a clear, hands-down winner, what resulted were two potential slogans being recommended to us by Livengood/Nowack:
    Know your food. Go Co-op.
    Real food. Real connections. Go Co-op.
  • Each of these slogans speaks to consumers in a slightly different way. Both are focused on food. Both offer an action that is empowering and inviting at the same time. Are we there yet, and should we take it to the next level? These are the questions the project sponsors are currently considering. We are committed to a collaborative process. Therefore we chose to pause and invite feedback from our individual members and the greater co-op sector.

Next steps

Where do we go from here? We’ve gotten great feedback and are determining next steps as a group. One thing is clear: we are committed to moving forward with consistent messaging. Regardless of what that message is, our opportunity and power reside in raising a single voice. Go Co-op!

The Hartman Model
The Hartman Model classifies consumers into one of three categories (core, mid-level and periphery) based on consumer beliefs and behavior with respect to health and wellness from a “world perspective.” Central to a world perspective are dimensions that organize that world. All of these dimensions are linked by a common world theme (e.g., health and wellness shopping), with different dimensions applying more strongly as a customer moves from shopping at the periphery (the mass market store) to the core (the independent health food store). At the periphery, key buying factors include price, brand, and convenience, while key buying factors for the core include authenticity, knowledge, and the role of expert opinion. Typically, the people and organizations comprising the periphery greatly outnumber those connected to the core, while the majority of consumers reside in the mid-level segment. Learn more at


Kelly Smith is director of marketing and communications for the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).

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