Don’t be fooled into grasping the wrong end of the mutuality stick
September 6, 2012
I was a flag-waver for mutuality long before mutual organisations gradually started “trending” in the wake of the largely investment-banking-led financial tsunami. So I should be celebrating the attention the government and business commentators are currently lavishing on them.
For me however, it’s puzzling how mutuality is still misunderstood and too often patronised by critics who see the mutuals as dull, unexciting and a throwback to an apparently largely irrelevant age of innocence.
When the talk turns to mutuality it’s usually the shareholding and remuneration elements that attract the most attention. It’s true that finance and reward help to unify stakeholder groups of which the employees are arguably the second most important (behind their customers). But having worked with many high-profile brands down the years, I know that it’s too simplistic to suggest that even in an economic slump, sustainable performance is largely down to the financial contract with the employee.
I feature a range of building societies as well as the much heralded John Lewis Partnership in my books. John Lewis’ current head of internal communications used to work for me. And I know from my experience as a customer that their partnership mentality in particular is more a manifestation of voluntary behaviour than financial incentives.
The employees (called partners) have a respect for the legacy of the business and are attracted to the brand because of the way of working and their employer brand as a whole. They have a shared ethos, philosophy, value set and culture that they nurture with care. Their values are at the centre of their HR processes, ranging from recruitment and communication through to performance management. In fact, it’s a reflection of the regard in which the people functions are held that the company’s chief executive used to head up HR, a very rare phenomenon.
It’s no surprise to me that John Lewis has largely bucked the downturn. JLP, like another high-profile, counter-cyclical performer, the Co-operative group, is very much a mutual organisation at heart. As with the Co-Op, which has grown significantly during the downturn, the success of John Lewis is rooted firmly in the way it creates advocates and collaborative partnerships within and beyond the organisation by remaining true to its values.
While it is encouraging to hear Cameron; Clegg and co laud the JLP ethos to such an extent that they suggest the model could be critical to the recovery of the UK economy, the true route to sustainability, as the mutuals and their ilk have proven time and again, is engaging partners with their core values and ensuring that they back them up in their everyday behaviour or culture. Practising what you preach is what the great brands do best, and by great I also mean sustainable.
Yet the mutuals are still criticised in many quarters for being dull, uninspiring and old-fashioned. Take these comments by Interbrand’s London CEO Graham Hales, for example, made during the Financial Services Forum’s Seminar into Modern Mutuality* :
“Mutuality as a term isn’t well understood by consumers, and in a category where interest ranges from passive to downright negative, it’s wrong to expect them to find out what it means. Claims that we operate in our customers’/members’ ‘best interests’ shouldn’t really feel like
new news. In its own right, it’s not enough and indicates a weakness of a brand if that’s all there is to say. Better to think further forward to brand promises that are more differentiating and relevant to today’s, and better still, tomorrow’s consumers.
Sadly, their needs and demands have never been more apparent or less satisfied; it’s just their interest and relationship with the
market that have subsided in the face of complex and unfulfilling products and sleep-inducing messaging.”*
While I can see where Graham’s coming from, I would argue that his comments underestimate the core mutual customer and underplay the impact the ongoing financial crisis has had on general consumer needs, perceptions and tolerance levels, especially with regard to risk and trust. What was “fashionable” five years ago has changed dramatically. What constitutes brand weakness/strength has undoubtedly changed too.
The financial facts speak for themselves. A growing number of consumers clearly now crave the customer satisfaction ratings the mutuals attract. They seemingly understanding enough about the mutuality principles and the importance of living the brand given the ongoing defection from the hitherto dominant brands who spend considerably more differentiating themselves in their advertising but continue to be tainted by wave after wave of scandals.
It’s no coincidence that values, behaviours and culture are being spoken about more and more frequently in consumer watchdog and regulatory circles and feature more prominently in advertising like Nationwide’s “On your side” campaign.
I don’t agree with the view that customers’ “interest and relationship” with the market” has changed as a consequence of either “complex” or “unfulfilling” products. They have been badly and repeatedly betrayed by brands that say one thing yet practice another and who confuse impenetrable complexity with choice. I would argue that forward thinking boards are recognising that true differentiation for tomorrow’s consumers will take the form of brands that simply and consistently keep their promises. I would also assert that it’s actually the role of the agencies and consultancies to help leaders clarify, articulate and remain true to the unique essence of their brand while finding ways to engage with customers by adding value and generating meaning. Like most businesses, mutuals are unlikely to be attractive to every consumer segment or critic. But practising what they preach is where they deliver more often than not.
Sure, attracting and retaining employees who willingly go the extra mile to make ambassadors out of their customers has something to do with the way profits are shared. Remuneration practices certainly need to be competitive and consistent with the values. Sexy, even arrogant advertising attracts certain types of customers and employees to the shop window. But we should have learned by now that truly sustainable profits come from consistent, on-brand behaviour. As the ongoing problems within the wider financial services sector illustrate however, don’t be fooled into believing that the financial model is the stick with which to drive sustainable performance, that funkiness or arrogance is essential or that brand wizardry of the slogan and strapline variety is the answer alone. As so many investors, consumers as well as employees continue to learn the hard way, there are many more vital lessons to learn from the true partnerships, the mutuals, who certainly hark back respectfully to their heritage but will perhaps be a more important part of our futures than most people anticipated.
*This quote is featured in Blessed are the Mutuals, the Summer 2012 edition of Argent, the Journal of the Financial Services Forum in which you’ll find a range of informed perspectives including quotes from myself, critics and commentators as well as leaders of mutual organisations past and present. Click here for a soft copy.