Building a Lasting Credit Union Brand

“The secret of a living brand is that is lives throughout the company, not just in the marketing department.”
–Marty Neumeir, author of The Brand Gap


Our society is all about brands today. Each year in the U.S., companies invest nearly $300 billion marketing their goods and services. Of every 60 minutes of prime time TV, over 17 minutes are commercials. Everywhere you turn—from bathroom urinals to bald foreheads—companies are promoting their brands. Of course, the problem is that TV commercials can be zapped, telemarketing calls can be blocked, newspapers are deemed dinosaurs, direct mail gets tossed in the trash before it’s opened and e-mails are stopped with anti-Spam filters.

How do you communicate your credit union’s message in such an environment? You build a lasting brand using the credit union brand triangle model.

Your credit union’s branding process revolves around three key groups: your leadership (management/board), your employees and your members. The credit union’s leadership must manage the brand, the credit union’s employees must live the brand and the credit union’s members must experience the brand.

“We used the brand triangle to rebrand our credit union recently, “said Cindy Prestandrea, president of Prince George’s Community FCU ($123 million, Upper Marlboro, Maryland). “Before using the triangle process we were at times unfocused. However, now our board, executive team and staff are all aligned.”

What is Branding?

Before explaining the brand triangle in detail, let’s first define what branding is. A brand is not an icon, it’s not a logo and it’s not an identity. So what is branding? There are thousands of ways to define branding, but ultimately, branding is “who you are.” Who you are as a credit union, who you are as a board, who you are as a management team, who you are as staff and who you are as members. Now that we know what branding is, let’s examine the three legs of a successful brand triangle.

(1) Leadership

Credit unions must have visionary leadership, not short term focus. Barry Silverstein, author of Breakaway Brands, says “More and more, management plays a crucial role in the success of a brand that breaks away from the pack.”

The leaders’(board, CEO, executive team) role is to understand what you are trying to build. What are your credit union’s goals and values? What is your vision? What is your mission? This is the essence of your brand and your credit union. It is this leadership team that does some soul searching and deep diving about your credit union.

Unless your brand stands for something, it stands for nothing. It is your leadership team that provides that brand direction. What is your brand mantra? For example, at Disney it’s “fun family entertainment.” At Starbucks, it’s “rewarding every day moments.”

Ultimately, all brands need good parents (as in good leadership). Brands are like children: they are attractive, endearing—and at times hard to manage. You have to protect your brand, nurture your brand and instill positive values in your brand. And like children, it takes years to develop.

When it comes to leadership all “chiefs” must embrace your brand. Yes, this even means the chief financial officer! Senior management buy-in is critical. In other words, the brand does not just reside in the marketing department. All chiefs need to talk about the brand in their areas (operations, H.R., branches, etc.) on a regular basis.

(2) Staff

You can’t have a strong brand without a strong staff. In fact, strong brands focus on employee retention (it’s a part of their brand). Even though this is a credit union publication, consider how one of our banking competitors looks at branding and staff. Larry Fish, president and CEO of Citizens Bank consistently tells employees at all levels “your dedication to the brand goes right to the bottom line.”

Your staff must buy into your brand. They must see a connection between their job and the brand.

This means your brand must be real with your staff. If your staff doesn’t “get” your brand, then it doesn’t matter what vision your leadership sets. It’s your staff that must live the vision every day.

One credit union that successfully built their brand is Generations Community FCU ($397 million, San Antonio, TX). When they changed their name from San Antonio City Employees FCU a few years ago they also went through a thorough re-branding project (in part using the brand triangle as a guide). Much of their efforts (and subsequent success) focused on staff.

“We wanted to ensure that we had strategic buy in from everyone, from the corner office to the front-line staff; so before we even put pen to paper, we assembled an Internal Communications Team.  The IC Team was comprised of a wide variety of individuals with varying tenure and skill sets,” said Chris Voigt, Generations FCU’s chief operations officer. “This team was a crucial component of our rebranding strategy, as they served as a two-way conduit of information for all our staff members.  They were the first to bring questions from staff, and at the same time they were the initial point of contact for staff members with questions.”

How your staff serves your members affects your brand. If your brand says “friendly” and your operator is rude, then your brand is rude. Marketing may put the public face on the brand. Yet the call centers, branches, member services, operations support all play an important role in the experience the members have with the brand.

The biggest threats to your brand come from within. One negative experience with a credit union touch point can negate all the brand equity you’ve built. For example, a Starbucks front line employee (note: NOT a Starbucks executive) once said, “we’re not in the coffee business serving people, we’re in the people business serving coffee.” It’s the same with your credit union: you are not in the financial services business; you are in the people business.

You can do something simple like challenge every front line employee to learn one member’s name per week by site (where when the member walks in staff immediately know who they are without having to pull their account information). Your managers should ask their employees at the end of the day, “What did you do today to help our members succeed financially?”

One practical step credit unions can take is to conduct brand training for all your staff. Make sure they understand what branding is, what your brand is and what role they play in branding.


(3) Members

Your brand is only as strong as the sum of your relationships with your members. Ultimately you want your members to be loyal to your brand.

You must make your credit union memorable. In other words, provide wow experiences. For example, some credit unions provide dog biscuits in the drive through lane if they see a dog in the car (or even a dog biscuit if they see an unruly kid in the backseat!). A few credit unions have even adopted a concierge type service (think Wal-Mart greeter effect). Some bake cookies and provide popcorn on Friday. These little steps go a long way in wowing your members.

Consider Neches FCU ($322 million, Port Neches, Texas).

“I really believe our community involvement efforts set us apart from the rest,” says Jason Duplant, vice president of marketing for Neches FCU.  “If you visit our booth at a festival, it’s going to be a WOW experience.  We’re giving out SWAG, we’re giving younger kids free punch balls, our mascot ‘nCredible’  is participating in dance contests, etc.  What we’re not doing is sitting in seats and going unnoticed.”

What is your credit union passionate about? Is it helping people? Is it serving the underserved? Is it a particular population segment (for example Hispanics)? Find out what segment your credit union is passionate about reaching and plant yourself there.

Branch design features also influence member interaction.  For example, teller counter placement, retail displays, lobby signage, and any self-service kiosks. Your branch retail design also is communicating something about your brand.

Whether it’s branches or one on one interaction, member engagement is key.

A successful credit union brand is built by people: by visionary leaders, by engaged employee and by loyal members.


Mark Arnold, CCUE, is an acclaimed speaker, brand expert and strategic planner. He is also president of On the Mark Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in branding and strategic planning. Some of the services Mark provides include strategic planning, brand planning, leadership/management training, marketing planning and staff training. His web address is and his blog is You can also contact him at 214-538-4147 or

Mark Arnold

Mark Arnold

Mark Arnold is an acclaimed speaker, brand expert and strategic planner helping businesses such as credit unions and banks achieve their goals with strategic marketing insights and energized training. Mark ... Web: Details

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