Once upon a time… telling the story of credit unions

When it comes to their marketing, financial institutions are at something of an impasse. The reason for this is they’re undergoing a period of transition. Recent years have not been kind to the finance industries, even less so for their customers. Yet whilst conditions are improving, financial institutions now tread a fine line, balancing the requirement to still be seen as robust, trustworthy and venerable, with new requirements to be seen as open, transparent, and sympathetic to the needs of their customers. As with almost all things marketing today, the agent of change in this case is the digital realm. Readily available information is at a premium and without it any organisation runs the risk of appearing to be cut-off; a shadowy monolith that warrants very little attention, and very little custom. The answer, as always, is to adapt. Financial institutions need to appeal to their audience at their level if they are to inform the discussion on their own terms.

Without doubt, the most active agent in this sea change of sentiment is Generation Y.  The result of what demographers call an ‘echo boom’, these 80 million Americans (26% of the population) born between 1979 and 1999, are worth an estimated $214 billion to the US economy, a figure which is anticipated to rise to as much as $3.4 trillion by 2018. Generation Y is also set to hold the greatest portion of the nation’s wealth, will have the greatest portion of the nation’s wealth to invest in the future, and hold the greatest amount of sway when it comes to influencing the decisions of their peers and elders. Perhaps most troublingly, Generation Y is also that which demonstrates the greatest distrust of financial institutions, is least likely to interact with a financial institution ‘face to face’, and is thus the most elusive of demographics.

But that’s not all. Whereas a few decades ago the older generation was the worst off in America, today the honour now belongs to Generation Y. Pew Research finds that this generation is the first in the modern era to experience higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of personal income than their predecessor generations at the same age. Despite being, on average, the most highly qualified in history, this generation is the first to experience a lower standard of living than their parents’ generation and is the most likely to be targeted by fraud at any scale. In short, today more than ever before, the younger generation needs your help. But where do we start?

First off, we need to ask what it is they really want when communicating with their credit union. Is it more technology? Better branches? Bundled products? Should credit unions try to reach them through familiar media such as social media and mobile? Or should they simply allocate greater resource to promoting sentiments such as openness, approachability and transparency using mixed media? Each of these solutions and many more undoubtedly has its own merits and application, but I would submit a final piece to the jigsaw; one that’s often and lamentably overlooked, and one which, at its core, chimes with precisely the values credit unions are trying to promote – the story.

Let’s face it, when it comes to the main culprits it’s easy to understand why Generation Y may be a bit cautious when it comes to their choice of affiliation with a financial institution. But we must also remember that, for the majority of Generation Yers at least, their experiences and perceptions in this regard have been largely the same. Our young earners, savers and investors have learned to be distrusting of centralized institutions, remarkably resourceful when it comes to finding alternative solutions, and sympathetic when it comes to hearing the plights or achievements of their fellows. Today, that most elusive of demographics trusts only what it can relate to and interact with, anything else is just static.

As a result, any message we attempt to convey as marketers must invite scrutiny, be open and responsive to audience commentary, and designed to help the recipient to develop trust over time. Key to achieving this is choosing to not put the product or service at the centre, and key to achieving that is by telling the story that surrounds it to create lifestyle relevant context, rather than single minded urgency.  As a great marketer once said, “Sell a good night’s sleep, not the mattress”, so tell your brand’s story, and let the right customers choose you for the right reasons.

Stories engage people; they entertain and persuade, they provide social authentication, and they aggregate popular approval or disapproval. To venture into even loftier platitudes, stories form the basis of our development as a social species. We’re hard-wired to respond to them, to assign meaning to seemingly nonsensical series of events, and to make important decisions based on what we recognise, even loosely, to be some form of narrative. Advertisers have used stories to compel their clients’ audiences for generations. Some attempt to undermine and rebuild, others reinforce a lifestyle alternative, but in all cases their goal is to elevate your brand beyond the background noise, and to bring it to life. And the best way to do that is, of course, is to understand your people.

From the perspective of any established institution – whether they’re a credit union, bank, utilities supplier, internet service provider, even government – perhaps one of the most important things customers have learned is that behind every email address, telephone number, reference, auto-response or press release, is a person. Even more important is the knowledge that behind every advert is a person who has benefitted from that product or service. The solution, then, is to identify where your brand comes alive. What it means to the day to day lives of your members, and what it is they would say if they were selling it to their peers. For us, we’ve already found the perfect medium; a static resource which is given pride of place, is viewed dozens of times a day and has real application 365 days a year. The calendar is our way of bringing a brand into the home where it can be tried, tested and trusted on the customer’s own terms, because trust in the teller will lend credence to any good story.

Terry Van Ryhn

Terry Van Ryhn

Terry has over 30 years’ international experience in marketing communications, delivering top-calibre solutions to major clients across the globe via agencies in Detroit, Cape Town, London and the Isle of ... Web: www.ashgrovemarketing.com Details