The Co-op brand has been constructed on a simple and powerful idea: ethical business. Its dilemma now is that the scandals of the past year stand in total opposition to that core brand idea.

The Co-op brand has been constructed on a simple and powerful idea: ethical business. Its dilemma now is that the scandals of the past year stand in total opposition to that core brand idea.

When Cohn & Wolfe decided last year to conduct a survey of the brands which UK consumers considered to be the most transparent, ethical and ‘authentic’, it was no surprise to us that the Co-op came a close second to that enduring favourite, M&S.

Clearly this most venerable and unique corporate brand was still being held in high regard by the British public. People believed it was living up to its core values of ethical, sustainable business.

Since then, there has been a rare catalogue of disasters, a toxic mixture of corporate, financial and very personal failings.

Our interest is in how these various disasters have tarnished the Co-op’s corporate brand, which has been built so carefully and conservatively since 1844.

The Co-op brand has been constructed on a simple and powerful idea: ethical business. That’s why it featured so highly in our study in 2013. Its dilemma now is that the various scandals of the past year stand in total opposition to that core brand idea.

When you say that you are fundamentally an ethical company, you have to mean it and make sure that you have processes in place to make sure that you don’t depart from the course.

There are some corporate strategists who would argue that the sorry case of the Co-op shows the dangers of hanging your brand hat on the ‘ethical’ peg. Is this an idea to be avoided as an inevitable ‘hostage to fortune’?

Our response to that, based on the research we have conducted across UK, USA and China, would be a resounding no. The data showed clearly that consumers will reward companies who are seen to be open, honest, transparent and ethical.

What’s the starting point for a corporate brand which truly aspires to be ethical?

For us, that begins with those key concepts of honesty, transparency and authenticity. Would-be ethical brands should conduct an audit of every aspect of their business and ask: how would the outside world respond if they knew about this? Would it make us a more or less respected company?

There is a compelling reason for doing such an audit now. Recent corporate and government scandals have shown that it has never been easier for supposedly private corporate information to make its way to the world’s front pages and social media channels. Whatever is lurking in your corporate closet, you have to assume it will be made public at some point. Why not act before the inevitable happens?

Beyond the audit, an ethical brand truly embodies the concept in all aspects of the business, from board room to shop floor.

I don’t think it’s too late for the Co-op to regain its unique ethical reputation with the British public. The time is now to admit very publicly that the organisation has failed badly and that root and branch reform is now being undertaken to return to its core idea of ethical business.

  • Geoff Beattie is global head of corporate affairs at Cohn & Wolfe