A Cooperative Partnership For The Next Generation: Inside Co-op Live’s Naming Rights Sponsorship

The Co Op Group's Relationship With Labour
The Co-Operative Group’s Headquaters standing, on Monday 11th May 2015, at Angels Parade in central Manchester. — Members of the UK’s Co-Operative Group are to decide whether the Co-Op Group should continue to support the UK’s Labour Party, through the Co-Operative Party. The decision will take place at the group’s annual general meeting. (Photo by Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto) (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Co-op Live is a venue of many firsts, and it doesn’t stop at the building’s naming rights partner, for whom this marks the first foray into venue sponsorship. It’s quite a remarkable partnership for various reasons, not least because of the commitment to charity inherent to it. On the surface — a privately-owned business teaming with a cooperative — it may seem like an unlikely partnership, but below it, there’s alignment on many levels.

Co-op, which is short for The Co-operative Group, is a unique business with a fascinating history. The group’s roots trace back to the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, established in 1844 in Rochdale, England, a stone’s throw away from Manchester. The first-ever Co-op store, as well as a Co-op museum, are still located there.

Merriam-Webster defines a cooperative as “an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services,” which is exactly what the Rochdale Pioneers established, building upon principles including voluntary and open membership, democratic control of the enterprise by its members, as well as economic participation by the members, and a strong concern for the local community.

The need for these principles was obvious. The Industrial Revolution, which originated in England, had swept the entire world by that point, giving rise to prosperity and inequality on an unprecedented scale. If you were born poor, you stayed poor. Your social status stuck with you for life, almost like in a caste system, and the Rochdale Pioneers challenged that. They believed in a more socialist approach and set out to create a member-owned organization. If you paid one pound, you could access a learning loft, a library above the shop, filled with books, so people could learn to read. Self-betterment played a central role in the Pioneers’ thinking. They had strong ethics and believed in unadulterated food free of glass, sawdust, and other things used at the time to increase quantity at the expense of quality. Co-op members shared in the profits, which were mostly invested in improving the local communities. According to Amanda “AJ” Jennings, director of marketing communications food at Co-op, that model has remained the same for over the past 180 years.

Given the brand’s age, it naturally has an older customer segmentation. The company realized it wanted to reach out to new audiences and grow the under-36 membership, which, according to Jennings, was around 20% of the total membership base at press time. So, in 2018, Co-op began setting up shop at festivals, working with Live Nation, Superstruct, Glastonbury and others.

“Our values align quite easily with young people,” Jennings says. “We want them to understand how a membership-owned business works, and that we are a brand that’s for [them]. We have to modernize and find ways to keep relevant and really demonstrate value for our membership.”

Partnering with OVG will help massively with that, which is not to say that the program of Co-op Live only speaks to young audiences. Aside from Olivia Rodrigo, Nicki Minaj and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, the opening season also features Eagles, Eric Clapton, Barry Manilow and many more. Co-op members will have priority access to all of the presales once they’ve downloaded the Co-op app and created a Ticketmaster account.

“Within the first 13 presales that we had, we got some 60,000 new members, just like that,” Jennings says. “And these are conservative numbers. We’re probably going to get over 100,000 new members off the back of Co-op Live.” Co-op stood at five million members at press time, and Jennings expects to hit eight million by 2030. She believes “that members that come through Co-op Live are worth more than an average member because they’re so invested and engaged by what we’re trying to do.”

“It’s a brave move for Co-op,” she continues, but because the venue was built in Co-op’s backyard, and once Jennings understood Tim Leiweke’s vision, she thought, “we have to consider this. Co-op is one of the biggest brands in Manchester. And once you understand where the ticket traffic is going to come from – beyond the borders of the surrounding counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, and Yorkshire, up to Newcastle, North Wales, and down to Birmingham – it’s really compelling.”

Food is quite central to the deal: “We will have concessions, pop-ups, where we’ll be showcasing Co-op’s food, from hot food to grab-and-go, and we’ll be wholesaling across all the bars and into the suites,” Jennings says. “The food’s really great, that’s what we care about, and that’s what I want to hear people say.”

Co-op and OVG are aligned on various aspects, from sustainability to support for communities to zero food waste and member-only exclusive benefits. Another value, according to Jennings, is accessibility. “It can’t just be for the haves rather than the have-nots. That is where we’ll be giving tickets away. Co-op also has around 40 academy schools we invest in.”

She notes that Leiweke was “massively generous, the first thing he said was, ‘We’re gonna raise one million quid [annually] minimum,’” referring to OVG’s pledge to donate each year to the Co-op Foundation, which intends to use the money for its Young Gamechangers Fund and other charitable initiatives. This fund, as the name suggests, goes toward young people aiming to change the world for the better.

And fostering the next generation of talent on and off stage is also close to the heart of OVG, which delivered some 100 apprenticeships during Co-op Live’s construction phase.
“There’s tons of stuff we align on, which makes it a fairly easy partnership,” Jennings says. “And to build it through the headwinds that we faced on this project Brexit, a global pandemic, the war, a cost of living crisis – the fact that it’s opening at all is just unbelievable.”

One of the ways Co-op Live is making sure nothing takes away from the music experience, and the artist-fan connection, is its completely black bowl, where no advertising will be visible. Not a problem, according to Jennings, who says, “We don’t need Co-op plastered all over the building, it’s about what is important to the fan experience. We want to accentuate the fan experience in the right way. For example, when you check into the building, we’ll know you’re a member, and we’ll say, ‘Because you’ve been shopping with us, and you’ve spent x, y and z, we are upgrading you to row one a.’

Jennings adds, “There’ll be opportunities to potentially go backstage, and other secret places in the building. Before you get there, during the presale, there’ll be loads of information that we can get through about joining Co-op, then you obviously check into the building, and you can try beautiful food, you might get upgraded to all sorts of places, fast-track entry, etc. And then, after the show, you’ll be able to relive your experience through various ways, and we’ll try and get you back to Co-op Live as soon as possible. In short: the more you shop with us, the more you can get access to the building.”
The building itself will benefit from a brand that enjoys a great reputation across the UK, especially in the north of England, that area which has been addressed as the Northern Powerhouse by politicians in recent years.

It’s a real privilege to work for this brand because people feel a huge amount of respect for it,” Jennings says. “I get conversations that I never got previously working for other brands. There’s no way Glastonbury would have let any other supermarket in. I think it’s a new era for Co-op, to bring in the next generation of cooperators who are invited to come and use this thing as a platform to shout about what they want their future to look like because I think everyone’s got a lot to say about that right now.”