A new Co-operative culture

The Co-operative is breaking the mould with a new strongly branded strategy for its own-label lines. Clare Dowdy compares the company’s radical approach with that of the major supermarket chains and appraises the concepts created by QED

When a 450-strong supermarket chain tackles declining sales with a revolutionary own-label design, the major multiples are going to have to sit up and take notice.

This is the strategy of Co-operative Retail Services, which has gone through a massive operational overhaul in the last couple of years to reposition itself as a strong brand.

The first manifestation of the repositioning was Wolff Olins’ four-square colour identity under which all the CRS’s businesses were united two years ago. The umbrella brand was intended to clarify the CRS’s set-up and differentiate it from the Co-operative Wholesale Society. The co-operative movement comprises 40 individual societies, the CRS and CWS being the two biggest.

Wolff Olins also designed the interiors of the CRS’s smart new building in Rochdale – coincidentally the birth place of the movement. With its light, minimalist feel, circular atrium and modern art , it is the antithesis of what you expect from such an organisation.

Christine Evans was brought in as design manager at the end of 1997, from Sainsbury’s. She joined to spearhead the CRS’s much-needed rethink in terms of own-brand packaging, and, following the start of the revamp programme, to standardise new exterior and interior store design.

“I saw an opportunity to be part of the drive to turn the business around,” says Evans. “CRS had declining market share and an old-fashioned and dowdy image.”

Evans built up a new design department of three design executives, or managers, who work on specific sectors. She also put together the packaging roster, led by London group The Quite Extraordinary Design Partnership, with The Chase and Barrington Johnson Lorains in Manchester, and Absolute in Skipton. Evans had worked with ten-strong QED when she was at Sainsbury’s.

The CRS wants to establish itself in the community, and Evans has two unnamed groups working on exteriors and interiors. “The stores have a comfort value for customers, but they don’t excite them,” she says. In order to project a unified image across all 450 sites, the CRS’s four supermarket chains are being rebranded under the Co-operative name.

While CRS’s market share has slipped and confusion reigned over the relationship between all the Co-op operators, its great strength continues to be its convenient town centre locations and customer loyalty. “We’ve got the heritage through the organisation. Customers trust the Co-operative,” she says. This is particularly relevant as retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s are returning to smaller town sites.

When it comes to own-label, Evans had pretty much a clean slate. What little own-brand packaging there was, had been designed locally without a design management team handling strategy. While the Lo-cost lines had a strong look, the own-brand pack design was disparate, carrying a number of different identities.

With QED, a radical statement was drawn up from research which would encapsulate the retailer’s packaging philosophy: “The Co-operative should not seek to be packaged according to the criteria of other existing multiples. It has the ability, if it sets the agenda, to be seen as different and better.” This set the scene for QED to think brand rather than own-label.

QED partner Phil Strachan criticises the major multiples for adopting a me-too policy on many of their packs. Take the logos off a handful of pizza boxes, for example, and a new game is created to guess which pack is stocked in which supermarket, QED discovered. “They are not using packaging to actively build the brand. A brand is a mark of ownership. That requires focus and definition,” he says.

QED partner Jeff Woolnough claims supermarkets all give the same design brief for food products: “They look at brand leaders and what they are trying to achieve, and they want their pack to do a job against the brand and steal the major equities.”

“We wanted to create a powerful [pack] identity, which was recognisable and honourable, like Heinz,” adds Strachan. The design also had to wrap up the CRS’s brand values – service, trust, value, quality and honesty.

The group returned to Wolff Olins’ identity, which had been reworked to sit better on facias and packaging. This four-square grid became key to the strategy. QED created a raft of concepts, using the grid subtly and humour-ously on some products, and more straightforwardly on high volume lines, where the branding would have the most impact. ©

The acid test for any design is whether a pack could look like a competitor’s if the logo were switched. “We always look at competitors because we don’t want to look like anyone else,” says Evans. “But we want to pick up on the [design] cues [of specific ranges].” Hence washing-up liquid will be in a pale yellow bottle.

Getting the trading department to buy into the grid idea was not difficult, once the buyers had appreciated how it would develop across 2000 ranges a year. Evans plans to lift own-label stocks from 15 per cent to 25-30 per cent next year, and 40 per cent the year after.

As the first redesigned products hit the shelf, the CRS hopes this is how to appeal to the “modern 2.4s” – young growing families – without excluding the older audience. “We know the target market is open to the Co-operative’s values,” says Evans. “Customers don’t expect us to look like everyone else.” Which is an attitude its rivals are not likely to ignore.

Christine Evans biography

1988 graduated with BA (Hons) Graphic Design, Newcastle Polytechnic

1988-90 graphic designer at The Chase in Manchester and the now defunct Crighton in London

1990-93 marketing role in a manufacturing company, and account manager at a design group

1993-97 design project management, brief spell at Tesco, then J Sainsbury

1997-,Co-operative design manager, responsible for own-brand

present packaging design, exterior branding and interior styling of stores

The Co-operative story

The co-operative movement was set up more than 150 years ago during the Industrial Revolution, from which today’s consumer co-operative movement was born. The Rochdale Pioneers opened their first shop in 1844.

Co-operative Retail Services, known as the Co-operative, accounts for 20 per cent of the co-operative movement’s trade, and comprises shops, funeral homes and car retailing.

Set up in 1934, it had net sales of nearly 1.5bn for the year ending January 1997.

Its four supermarket chains, Pioneer, Leos, Lo-cost and Stop & Shop, are all being rebranded under the Co-operative name.

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