There is a feature on It’s Nice That about a supposed trend of nostalgic rebranding in graphic design at the moment. Invited designers discuss the recent Co-op and Natwest make-overs, which both revive previous incarnations of their graphic identities.
AceJet 170 picks up the story, declaring that in the case of the Co-op it isn’t about nostalgia, but that it is simply a good idea, (clinching the argument by citing the ever brilliant Ken Garland). To nail my colours to the mast: I liked the North Co-op rebrand from the off, thinking it a brave idea. Judging by the design press at the time, it was the last thing many would have expected them doing. But I never read it as a complete copy—North had tweaked the identity enough to make it feel contemporary rather than simply a re-run of the past. It is clean, focussed and striped of ad-speak and spin. I felt it represented the Co-op and the ethics they built the business on. In other words, it (re)presented a no-nonsense approach.
But what surprises me most about the It’s Nice That article and what the invited commentators had to say, is that there is no mention of the Co-operative Bank in all of this—how can the Co-op rebrand be discussed without reference to the trouble it got into prior to this visual overhaul? What happened was toxic for the entire brand and had the potential to poison the reputation of the rest of the Co-op’s assets, regardless of whether they were party to the poor practices of its banking wing or not. This was a potential PR disaster for everything else the Co-op did, for it was possible that in the eyes of the public the rest of the organisation as guilty by association, regardless of the fact that each sector runs its own affairs under the Co-op umbrella.
This context is only hinted at on It’s Nice That. In the post, Neil Cummings of Wolff Olins—who knows a thing or two about branding—says such a nostalgic tactic sends the signal that “we’ve lost our way, we’re going back to our roots”. In the case of the Co-op, stating ‘we are going back to our roots’ was something that was necessary to state. It was attempting to re-align what people thought of it with its long held ethical status and the fact that its co-operative business model was at the heart of the organisation. Indeed, this is something that is important to me personally, having been a customer of the Co-operative Bank for many years precisely because of its ethical stance, and as a frequent visitor to my local Co-op food store.
Whether this rebrand was a conscious decision to address these issues or not, the fact that it implicitly harks back to times when the Co-op’s ethics weren’t in question, is an important signifier for the organisation’s identity to make.
See previous comments in a post I wrote after visiting a People’s History Museum exhibition in 2014 that celebrated the Co-op, while it was in the middle of its troubles, (scroll to the end of the post for comments on the Co-op).