What happens to the MEC brand when it loses co-operation?

—Kingswood isn’t buying a retailer. It’s buying a cult brand. And an ethical brand, says Eric Blais—

The roots of the co-operative movement in Canada can be traced back to Quebec in 1900, when Alphonse Desjardins established the first Caisse Populaire, which eventually became Desjardins Financial Group—now Quebec’s largest financial institution, serving millions of Quebeckers who are member-owners.

In 2003, as part of its strategy to differentiate itself from other financial institutions, Desjardins adopted the slogan “Ceci n’est pas une banque/This is not a bank.” It was soon replaced by “Plus qu’une banque/More than a bank,” apparently in response to prospective customers concerned their savings wouldn’t be safe unless they entrusted them to a real bank.

At its core, Desjardins remains a co-operative, but it had to evolve to grow and remain competitive. In the process, its brand equity has also evolved, becoming a bank and less of a movement of members.

Now that struggling Mountain Equipment Co-op has been sold to Los Angeles-based private investment firm Kingswood, the former co-op will have to convince shoppers that it is more than just another outdoor equipment retailer.

Early reactions to the news suggest this is going to be a tough hill to climb. Members are not happy. Many announced on social media that they plan to cancel their membership. For some, already feeling their co-op had lost its way by focusing less on leading-edge mountain gear and outdoor education and more on high-end leisure apparel, it’s one more reason to start shopping elsewhere.

According to the press release, Kingswood fully supports MEC’s brand and commitment to enabling everyone to lead an active outdoor lifestyle. Kingswood’s managing partner, Alex Wolf, describes MEC as “an iconic brand founded on strong values and has a loyal following.” True. And that’s precisely why this is going to require a careful balancing act.

Kingswood isn’t buying a retailer. It’s buying a cult brand. And an ethical brand.

As a cult brand, MEC has a core group of loyal followers who rightly feel a sense of ownership. Their relationship with the company transcends the goods they purchase.

But that bond may have started to weaken long before COVID-19 kept us at home. It could be said that as the co-op expanded and rebranded in 2013, removing the mountains from its logo to signal an increased product assortment for a wider range of activities, some of its most loyal followers started questioning their cultish devotion to MEC.

As an ethical brand, MEC has been held to a higher standard. In 2018, it stopped selling popular lines of sporting goods from Vista, a company which also makes guns, including the type of rifle that claimed so many lives in Parkland, Florida.

Long before it became fashionable to speak of “brand purpose,” brands like MEC and Patagonia lived according to their values in one critically important and authentic way: both identify their culture in their employees, by hiring outdoor enthusiasts and committed environmentalists. Will they stick around at MEC under new bosses?

It’s too soon to say if MEC can retain (some would say reclaim) what made it iconic now that it’s no longer a movement supported by members. However, MEC not only faces the challenges of new ownership that could change its brand DNA. It faces a pandemic that has forced it to go private to survive. Other major players like Sport Check, SAIL and French-owned Decathlon are also fighting for share during these unprecedented times.

But they can focus entirely on generating customer traffic and sales, while MEC needs to do that and redefine its raison d’être now that it’s no longer a co-op. 

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.

David Brown