Why the Co-op is the most disappointing of brands

The Co-op frustrates me more than any other brand I can think of. I don’t know what it stands for anymore and it doesn’t either. Its recent decision to crowdsource its brand positioning doesn’t so much feel like a confident experiment in open source branding as it does a desperate plea for someone, anyone, to tell it what it is and where it should go. Not waving, but drowning.

Why should we care so much about the slow death of the Co-op brand? It is after all just another tired high-street name that’s perhaps long been overdue a bullet.

For me it’s the frustration at what it could be. It *could* be the mainstream face of ethical commerce. A shiny green reminder that supermarkets and banks don’t have to be evil. That you can buy a multi-pack of loo roll or take out a loan without feeling like you’re funding the next yacht of some fat-cat hybrid of Philip Green and Alan Sugar.

But it’s not. Instead, while its peers have successfully assimilated the Co-op’s former USP of sustainability into their offer – Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s stand out here – the Co-op has limped along with half hearted attempts to compete on price while selling overpriced, unexciting Fairtrade brands. Like the worst combination of an ethical food store from the early ’90s and a corner shop that charges you £3 for a can of beans. And that’s just the failings of its food business – let’s not start on its banks.

So what *can* the Co-op do to claw back some brand integrity? It should start with where its brand has most exposure and most opportunity to rebuild public trust – its food stores. Earlier this year, the Co-op announced its strategy to become the UK’s leading convenience food retailer. ‘Convenience’ and ‘ethical’ are not words that feels like natural bedfellows but perhaps this is the territory that the Co-op can own – making quick, easy and cost-effective groceries ‘good’ too.

So rather than stocking Gingsters and those packets of five apple slices in a plastic bag (surely one of the least sustainable food items around) it could stock mini pies made from local producers and get rid of plastic packaging on fruit altogether. It could provide more cost-effective solutions for the single shopper to reduce waste – open boxes of salad where customers can grab exactly as much as they need rather than being forced to buy a family bag of rocket for £2 that’s inevitable gone soggy by day three.

This might all feel a bit organic lentil pie in the sky, but it’s actually something HiSbe – a new concept supermarket around the corner from where I live in Brighton – is doing brilliantly. You can pick up a frozen ready meal for one that’s not made by Findus but by local producers, and at a competitive price point (£3 for a veg lasagne – so cheaper than an Innocent Veg Pot). Soups, cheese, bread and milk – all convenience staples – also come only from local producers and again at a competitive price.

Of course its food stores are just one of the woes of the Co-operative group and radical improvements here might never right the wrongs of its banking misdemeanours, in the public’s eyes at least. But I’d like to see it try. Why? Because beyond the harm the Co-op has done to its own brand it’s the damage it’s done to the co-operative (lowercase) brand that’s the most depressing.

It’s sullied the idea that a business model ran by and for the benefit of the many rather than the profit of a few can be successful rather than some embarrassing mess that the big boys need to come and sort out. That decency and fairness can win out over greed and self interest. And its perhaps this – not the personal crisis of Paul Flowers or the decline of yet another UK high-street brand – that could be the most devastating legacy of the Co-op’s failure to get it right.