Cathy-Small Meet Cathy, the Cooperative Development Institute’s new answerwoman! She can take on any co-op questions you might have, big or small. Today we address the question: “What are the benefits of marketing ourselves as a cooperative?​” See all of Cathy’s answers and ask your own on her home page.

This is a guest column by Roberta MacDonald. Senior Vice President of Marketing, Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

Roberta MacDonald. Senior Vice President of Marketing,  Cabot Creamery Cooperative
Roberta MacDonald, Senior Vice President of Marketing,
Cabot Creamery Cooperative

The formula for marketing yourself as a co-op and for building greater awareness of co-ops may be simply to change how you think about the business you are in and, while you are at that, also realizing who you are talking to is not who you think it is.

Sounds like sleight of hand? Kind of. But what I believe is that co-ops could learn a trick or two from a dairy cooperative—Cabot Creamery—that has built a brand that is centered on its cooperative position.

Look at a Cabot Cheese ad and often what you will see in large type is: “Owned by Dairy Farmers Since 1919.”

That smacks the viewer in the head with a big message: We are different. We are not about big business profits. We are not about Wall Street.

If ever there were a business that is about Main Street, it is Cabot, whose heart beats in hamlets in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York State, Maine and Massachusetts. Of course we believe our product is great. But our secret sauce may be the basic marketing I will outline for you today.

2Remember this: you have a lot in common with Cabot. You are about Main Street, too, not Wall Street. What works for us, just might for you.

Know your members

Start with deep knowledge about your members.

Don’t guess. Don’t assume. Dig in and do research. It’s easy and cheap in the Internet age. Use Survey Monkey, for instance.

I’ll bet you a nibble of cheese that you will find out the unexpected and that is that a good number of your members don’t realize you’re a cooperative. And even among the ones who know, they may not really know what a cooperative means and how it differs from a shareholder owned business.

You have heard – who hasn’t? – that this is the age of “Big Data.” What you are about to do is build your own big data set by asking your members about themselves. You can include standard survey questions, like demographics and membership info, but you can also delving into why they joined, and what they think being a co-op means.

Once you have your data and questions, take advantage of the best opportunity, which is to talk to your consumers. Have questions queued up for when members come in your store or contact you. Stage a group survey night when employees stay late to call members at home. Take steps also to go after digital consumers, especially the Millennials who will be your future. They may not often step into branches. They may not answer 3phone calls. How can you reach them? You can Tweet, you can be active on Facebook – at Cabot we do both, a lot. Build a dynamic web presence. Keep reaching out so that you find ways to make contact with these non-traditional members who may become the norm in a not distant future.

Once you have a summary, let everyone you talked to know the results. Engage your stakeholders—your members. Know that what you learn can also become great grist for media—truly authentic PR, not just slogans. For example, if you are a credit union, a quote for a news release can highlight the economic impact your co-op has..

“More than 2,000 cars purchased by XYZ CU members in the last year from local car dealers make our credit union a significant economic engine,” says the credit union CEO. “We are proud to team with area dealers to ensure that our members get the best rates and the best pricing.”

News releases based on surveys make great human interest stories. Members make the best brand awareness builders. What are you doing to give them tools to brag about you?

Know your fellow cooperatives

It is powerful to collaborate among your fellow co-ops in your community and region. Learn and share what’s worked.

Cabot’s initial growth into the south would not have been as successful without the indelible connections the Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.28.29 PMelectric co-ops and credit unions made for us with their members. Cabot coupons were included in statements and newsletters. We still offer gift baskets for annual meetings and distribute cents-off coupons to credit unions in new markets. We could not have asked for a better introduction to like-minded consumers.

Several years ago, Cabot formed a Vermont Cooperative Alliance to engage all cooperative groups—initially to tackle a group promotion for Co-op Month. Meeting quarterly, the group took on legislative issues and consumer-awareness building. Most importantly, preliminary work was done to feature individual members and consumers.

4Our best achievement was the creation of the Vermont Summit. Cooperatives across the state gathered to hear from statewide candidates for US Senate and governor. Challenging candidates before they gained office gave us a stronger point of influence. We provided the speakers with survey results prior to their speeches so they understood the little known but huge constituency that cooperative members represented if looked at as a whole and not just as individual producers or food cooperatives.

Total costs for all this? Really, very, very little. Many of us put in sweat equity but Vermont cooperatives – everything from telephone providers to food co-ops and agricultural producers – are old-fashioned Yankee skinflints. But we still managed to create a big impact because we worked together.

This is a huge idea and I assure you it works: get to know cooperators in other lines of business who are active in your community. There are food co-ops, agricultural co-ops (everything from cranberries and oranges to cheese), electric co-ops and retailers. Some big retailers are co-ops, such as ShopRite groceries in the northeast, as well as ACE Hardware and Carpet One. Newer co-ops, like taxi co-ops or purchasing co-ops, represent a great opportunity for engagement and new business.

Not every cooperative will welcome your suggestion that you work together – I can tell you that from bruised experience – but many will. It’s win-win. A member of a food co-op probably wants to use a credit union, they want to buy co-op produced food, and so on. The more they learn about this ecosystem the more they will use it because it is a style of doing business they support.

Know your goals

By creating goals for your research and data collection, you have the necessary structure to weigh what works best. Sounds simple, right? Too often, without goals, results become good stories but not building blocks for improvement and refinement. Goals will allow you to measure success and hold one another accountable for the human interaction required to truly grow your credit union.

Are your goals to have more members? More services used among existing members? You’ll need different objectives, different campaigns, and different channels for reaching them.

Tell Your Stories Around the People

At Cabot we are proud of our cheese. We believe it is the best value in the cheddar case. In person, whenever we can, we market by getting you to taste it. One bite and you will know the difference.

But on paper – on the Internet – you cannot taste it (at least not yet!). That is when we tell you about our people, 5especially our farmer owners.

How can you not love a small Vermont farmer with maybe 100 cows and who knows every cow by name and who cries when one dies of old age, not in a glue factory, but in the barn where she grew up?

At Cabot we have many such stories that we never tire of telling and people love hearing. They are stories of hardship, of triumph, of dedication and all the other human themes.

People love stories about people.

To build awareness of your co-op in your community, you must take time to know your members, know your fellow cooperatives, and feature both in every way you can imagine. It is the nature of our founding principles.

What are the people stories you can tell? Make your people your stars and they will be better than big name celebs, mainly because they are real, they are authentic, and they tie into the cooperative theme: it is all about people helping people.

6Never forget that. It always is about people helping people.


Ask Co-op Cathy a Question

Why Your Customers Should Know You’re a Co-op: Lessons from the Cabot Creamery Cooperative
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