Cultivating Customer Relationships in Cooperatives

Now more than ever, co-ops that promote democracy and inclusion in their outreach hold the key their long-term success.  As the cooperative movement seeks to address the challenges of the 21st century (globalization, investor-driven capitalization, competition), educating people about the benefit of cooperatives and providing them the means to participate, will create a foundation for secure and stable businesses.  The difficulties co-ops are facing loom large, but cooperatives at their best are problem-solvers.  Co-ops can be drivers of their own destinies by cultivating the things that make them so great as businesses and community partners:  strong relationships.

Marketing consultant Rebecca Torpie has worked closely with leadership development expert Mark Goehring for the past year to launch the CDS CC pilot of the Power of Participation (POP) program.  Co-ops participating in the POP program include Weaver Street Market, River Valley Co-op, Central Co-op, Friendly City Food Co-op, Lexington Cooperative Market, and Hanover Food Co-op.  (Additional slots are available beginning in May—contact Mark Goehring for more information about participating in the POP program).

PowerOfParticipationAs more co-ops join the pilot program, Torpie said that it is clear that enhancing and embracing participation in co-ops is not a one-and-done project, but requires a sustained approach that strengthens overall marketing, outreach, and community-building systems.  “It’s an interrelated web where all of these groups interact,” Torpie said.  “In order for strong participation to occur in co-ops you need a positive staff culture supported by the administration and management.”

Like other CDS Consulting Co-op programs, POP takes a systems approach to helping co-ops identify issues and implement improvements.  As part of the POP program, co-ops go through an assessment process that identifies tactics that can help them make their systems more robust and resilient.  “We need to think about participation itself as a system that is part of our relationship culture,” Torpie said.

Developing a Positive Relationship Brand

rebecca-torpie-pullout-quote-tallOne of the common misconceptions about branding is that unless you call what you do “branding” you don’t have a brand identity.  Every business has a brand whether they are intentionally cultivating it or not.  Your brand is what creates positive or negative associations about your business for customers.

It’s also important to understand that branding and marketing are not one and the same.  Your brand is based on your strategic ability to create experiences that cultivate customer loyalty and demonstrate your business values.  Marketing activity comprises the tactics businesses use to promote goods and services to attract customers.  Think of it this way:  marketing helps you make the sale, and branding reinforces your relationship with that customer.  Effective marketing and a strong brand is the result of deliberate coordination and planning.

The keys to a positive brand are intentional and strategic actions that develop it.  Nearly every business on the planet wants a reputation as responsive, friendly and knowledgeable.  That doesn’t just happen.  It needs to be fostered internally and externally.  Consider the fact that no matter how beautiful the marketing materials might be, an under-trained or surly staff will undermine them because the actual in-person experience is not living up to the brand.
“I think at a base level we judge brands the way we judge people,” said Torpie.  People identify with others along an axis that comes down to two simple things:  friendliness and competence.  On the “friendly” scale people are often judged as warm, moral and ethical, and “competence” conveys professionalism and capability.  A strong brand employs both, inspiring participation based on a sense of trust that the organization is caring and proficient.

“On the warmth axis co-ops do good work, but often competence needs to be improved.  The food co-op is a common space where people buy groceries and own it together.  The chain competitors will never be able to replicate that.  If we can increase our competence level in our food retailing systems, I think we’ll be in good shape,” Torpie said.

joy-rust-pullout-quote-tallA strong co-op brand is one wherein people understand the co-op model and want to participate in it because it contributes to positive change in the community.  Joy Rust, former Common Ground marketing manager and now a CDS CC marketing consultant, said, “Co-ops today need to take a deeper look at their brand and be aware that they can create experiences in their stores that are strategically connected to their goals.”

From Rust’s perspective, this includes doing regular analysis of data and continually adjusting the co-op’s approach based on consumer engagement trends.  For example, she said that regularly looking at sales statistics, getting digital analysis of social media and website clicks, examining coupon retention, and doing competitor price comparisons are just some examples of data that gives the co-op the means to better understand customer needs and wants.

“Marketing and branding departments can also do a lot to help individual departments by sharing with them those statistics,” she said, and working with them on promotions that target customer needs.  For example, based on info from sales data, the produce department may want to do a promotion on kale.  To do that successfully, they would employ a number of tactics—coupons to targeted customer groups, changing the price, telling the farmer’s story, sampling, and creating an attractive display.  “It requires systems coordination between marketing and merchandising departments,” Rust said.

Just as marketing and branding are interrelated, so is marketing and merchandising, while each activity maintains a distinct purpose.  Marketing tactics raise customer awareness of the co-op’s goods and goals, and the role of merchandising is to plan product promotions and create retail displays that lead customers to make a purchase.  Merchandising requires solid data driving decisions about what customers want, making displays visually compelling, and supporting the overall image goals of the organization.

“A critical part of marketing and product promotion is to review, measure and report on what worked,” Rust said.  “It’s important to try new things.  Our competition is constantly evaluating and changing their approach.”  Data collection is useful for increasing participation because “the customer needs to feel like they’ve been heard and that you are responding to their feedback” even if they haven’t offered their opinions via the comment box.

nicole-klimek-pullout-quote-tallNicole Klimek, store planning and design, marketing and branding consultant, said co-ops going through growth or expansions are also seeking to identify what community needs are and how to include stakeholders in the process.  She noted that even though people envision expansions as being about construction timetables and choosing new fixtures, from her perspective the real work is often focused on increasing communication with everyone impacted by the co-op’s plans.  Klimek believes it is important to be focused on all the stakeholders in an expansion, and approaches her store planning from that perspective.  Before the construction plans are ever drawn, by getting all stakeholders aligned on the outcomes, the project can be planned and executed by management more successfully.

“A lot of co-ops want to know when to bring in owners, shoppers and staff,” to get feedback or solicit opinions.  To address that question Klimek has created a tool to help co-ops she works with know when and how to engage staff, boards and shoppers on the expansion process.  “You need to have a consistency in your presentation and proper sharing of info and a decision-making process,” she said.  The tool helps create a better communication experience for everyone.

Whether it’s planning an expansion or developing the coordination plan for the annual meeting, fostering engagement with the community is key.  All of the consultants in the POP program have confidence that co-ops will see results if they focus on all the ways they can enhance relationship systems to build loyalty.  Rebecca Torpie added, “You build loyalty by being high on both the warmth and competence scales.  These emotions drive the behaviors associated with loyalty:  shopping more and telling the co-op story to others.”


The CDS Consulting Co-op Marketing and Branding consultants include Patricia Cumbie, Nicole Klimek, Joy Rust and Rebecca Torpie.  Feel free to contact them to discuss your marketing and branding needs.

For more information about participating in the POP program, contact Mark Goehring.

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By |May 11th, 2016|Categories: Articles, Solutions|Tags: |

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