Ownership Will Define Credit Unions’ Successful Brand

For so long now credit unions have struggled to build the kind of clear national identification they can call their own. Many have looked to simpler examples—foodstuffs like pork and dairy—and in seeing those the not-for-profit cooperatives believe the answer is within reach. Surely what has been done for virtual necessities can be equaled, even improved on, by a passionate industry. Yet numerous programs have come and gone, half-embraced and resurfacing occasionally in isolated use or conversations of what might have been and what can be. Their retirement to the shelf of campaigns past can scarcely be blamed on the messages.

Can anyone now several years later argue against credit unions being a “comfort zone” in today’s financial services industry? How regularly do peers still define credit unions as “not for profit, not for charity, but for service,” and “where people are worth more than money?” What is revealed in sifting for a cooperative brand is the keyword “ownership.” No, not the fact that credit union members own their financial institutions, although that does work for some. Membership and structure as calling cards prove cumbersome despite their value in the argument against taxation. Rather, it is credit unions’ commitment that ultimately makes or breaks their attempts at self-identification.

First they must negotiate roadblocks like terminology, brand standards, and media selection. Overcome those and the path twists and turns through levels of contribution and not only establishing fair share but also reaching acceptance of others’ collateral benefit.

Consider South Carolina credit unions, which have launched two types of programs in recent months, each with certain appeal. As November 5 grew in popularity as the day consumers would regain the upper hand in their financial lives, executives at South Carolina Federal Credit Union acted to protect the phrase “Every day is Bank Transfer DayTM” from other interests, then to offer it for free use as a branding overlay by any other credit union. Some quick action generated a December 5-9 pilot by more than twenty in-state credit unions, and the phrase’s flexibility for application online, into statement and phone greeting copy, and within existing promotions translated to virtual overnight implementation. In whatever quantity, the final analysis of new business surrounding Bank Transfer Day has been unheard of before and worth repeating. BTD founder Kristen Christian has used the phrase herself of late, and even today any news and rumors of questionable activities by big banks quickly refer back to their blunders and the day they inadvertently created.

Meanwhile, a task force of in-state credit union marketers in January pitched to the South Carolina Credit Union League’s Media Committee an action-based program called “MAD TAG: Make A Difference…TAG, You’re It!” Contributors to the voluntary campaign join in a handful of group events planned across the state, providing an impactful presence and inviting the citizens who benefit to visit www.madtag.org and post how they have paid forward the goodwill. The pilot that included four gasoline giveaway events one week in February was within a budget of $10,000, and it generated an estimated $200,000-plus in news coverage. Current activities include sponsorship of regional radio-thons for Children’s Miracle Network while the next round of statewide MAD TAG events takes shape.

These initiatives bypass some common objections of jargon, brand conflict, and complexity, yet participation in each still lingers along the seam of critical mass and majority. Each is unique in structure and objective, preserving the option for any credit union to use both. And while an activity-based campaign by nature incurs expense, neither program is fully dependent on a substantial pool of funds for more expansive traditional media. What then is the tipping point?

In her July 2008 “CU Tomorrow Blog” post (http://filene.org/blog/post/a-national-credit-union-brand-not-an-ad-campaign), Jill Nowacki, CAE, CUDE—now vice president of development at MAPS CU (Portland, OR)– addressed the yes-or-no question of a national campaign with a third option: creation of a brand that credit unions can demonstrate or is built on what they already do. She even seems to foretell of the opportunities for credit unions that banks have since created in their own failures and foibles, then she identifies the primary issue. “(C)redit unions—however different their names, marketing slogans, or corporate colors—can thrive by sticking together on their most basic reason for being,” Nowacki offered. “I believe that collaboration toward building strong communities—with all credit unions joining to tell the story of their impact—will draw more positive response…than any amount of advertising ever will.”

Whether not-for-profit financial cooperatives can play the game and define themselves through goodwill or offer unique reasons every day for consumers to switch will depend on their complete unified action and collaboration. Embodying the principles, demonstrating the values, and fully participating in distribution and outreach—those equal ownership of a true credit union brand.

Brandon Pugh

Brandon Pugh

Brandon Pugh is the VP of public relations and communications for the Carolinas Credit Union League. His daily responsibilities include communication of key messages and objectives among the association’s ... Web: www.carolinasleague.org/? Details