Co-opting Brand Recognition for Social Change

Social Media has proven its worth for corporations and political campaigns.   In 2012 social media was used to spectacular effect to create awareness for brands such as Obama ’12, Jetsetter, Ikea, and Sharpie.  But is Social Media’s true value merely brand awareness – where consumers passively engage with brands for the return of discounts, special offers, and campaign promises?  I believe there is a more lasting impact to be found, and that is in social media’s ability to form networks, beyond those naturally available by proximity, and thus inform users of the power and opportunity to be found within cooperatives.

Cooperatives are a natural expression of how people wish to do business. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”.  In the past those autonomous associations were formed by proximity.  For example, my credit union, a financial cooperative was formed on the factory floor; born from a desire to provide affordable credit and to promote thrift to the mill employees of Nashua Gummed and Coated Paper Company, factory workers came together to pool their savings and create loans for those who could not otherwise afford the interest on a bank loan.  The values of coops are congruous with community and at the same time an important counterpoint to the shareholder driven business model of corporations.

Social Media provides many tools to educate, inform, and connect people with cooperatives.  Kristen Christian, a cooperatives advocate and highly effective social media thought leader, proved that Facebook was an invaluable tool to the movement when she founded Bank Transfer Day.  Created in response to the financial crises of 2008 where large shareholder owned banks burdened taxpayers on the way down with their need for bailouts, and attempted to burden consumers on the way back up with fees, Bank Transfer Day began as a Facebook event.  Individuals were encouraged to attend much like they would a friend’s birthday party.  The response was enormous and seismic.  Reports one year on stated that the event was responsible for Credit Unions netting 2.2 million members, almost double their normal growth.

Being fortunate to work for a credit union, I was introduced to Dr. Bill Branch, President & CEO of the World Council of Credit Unions.  Dr. Branch informed me of WOCCU’s efforts on Twitter (which I have been following since).  He indicated that the council saw a huge opportunity to build awareness through the micro-blogging site.  So much so, that they had tapped Charlene Li, one of the authors of Groundswell, to speak at the next World Council of Credit Unions gathering.  The pick suggests that Dr. Branch is prescient and aware of the way in which “people use technologies to get things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations” (Li pg9).

Social Media tools such as Facebook and Twitter have, in Christian’s case proven themselves, and in WOCCU’s case, surely will soon prove themselves, as valuable assets in connecting individuals in a way that transcends proximity, previously cooperatives’only tool of connection.  Great things are afoot and huge social change is imminent.

Ian – Southern New Hampshire University Grad Student

Li, Charlene.  Bernoff, Josh. (2008) Groundswell. Boston: Harvard Business Press. (pg 9).