Readying Your Credit Union for a Rebrand

By Hilary Reeves, CU Breakthrough

Creative Brand Communications CEO Jeff Stephens lead a series of webinars on CDFI branding last month based on the agency’s popular white paper, “The 7 Special Challenges of Branding For Community Development Financial Institutions – And What to Do About Them [Constructive Feedback From A Passionate, Concerned Newcomer].”

If you haven’t read the paper, it’s available here: CBC’s seven challenges include the fact that many people don’t understand what CDFIs are, increasingly varied stakeholders and audiences, the propensity for complicated, acronym-riddled names, and the debatable relevance of the term “community development.”

While I’m sure not everyone agrees with all of CBC’s points, the overwhelming response to the paper and the subsequent webinars’ popularity indicate a growing need for branding, communications and marketing instruction within the CDFI community – and beyond. CDFI-certified or not, small and mid-sized credit unions across the country struggle every day to publicize their stories without the help of outside agencies or internal marketing departments, and will benefit immensely from creating and maintaining a brand the way CBC suggests.

But rebranding can be difficult, both in terms of the amount of work required and the emotions associated with throwing out some of the old. Before you start working to find and develop your story (and thus, your brand), think about taking the following steps to ease the transition:

1. Banish denial and defensiveness

Leading a credit union is hard, a well-known fact for those of you who have worked tirelessly for years to make headway in struggling communities. The last thing you might want to do is break momentum and divert resources away from tried-and-true programs that “work,” especially in an attempt to fix things you aren’t convinced are broken. But if your credit union’s membership base or lending portfolio isn’t growing, your marketing plan IS broken. And the repercussions will grow exponentially year-over-year.

Instead of denying the problem and doggedly defending the status quo, admit your shortcomings and make some room for a fresh approach on whatever scale. You aren’t doing your credit union and any brand you might create any favors by denying your weaknesses or becoming defensive when a previous approach is tweaked (or even demolished). Remember that one person’s negativity, even if it’s not overt, can undermine a unified front. Take a deep breathe, change your attitude, and get on board!

2. Think about outside help

As discussed earlier, many small credit unions operate without a designated marketing and communications staff, and can’t afford the help of an agency to create a brand. While a DIY approach is often the only option (and can work), think about creative ways your credit union can utilize professional help to deploy your new message without breaking the bank. One idea: freelancers. Freelancing is back en vogue, due in part to stagnant hiring in creative fields and in part to the unique working atmosphere most creative professionals require. Sometimes called “consultants,” there are individuals in every major city ready and willing to help you develop an approach, design your logo or website, create marketing copy, write press releases, or polish your quarterly newsletter.

A freelancer’s rate is largely dependent on the amount of experience he or she brings to the table and, of course, the amount of work required. But remember that freelancers, especially those new to self-employment, are looking for long-term client relationships. You can find talented, hardworking individuals willing to work with you for less than you might expect in exchange for regular work. More on this in a future column.

3. Draft a realistic plan

Again, creating a brand requires some work: hours spent interviewing employees, identifying and developing a message and getting the message out. Before you embark on the journey, draft a realistic plan and create mid-point goals that can be reached along the way. Who is in charge of gathering information? How will they go about it and in what time frame? What’s the next step? You get the idea…

Remember that branding, marketing and communicating with the world at large is never “over.” It’s not tangible, like building a new branch or developing a new loan product. But creating a small framework within which your credit union can grow, and developing relationships that will allow it to thrive is an important step toward longevity.

The benefits of telling your credit union’s story in a cohesive and compelling way extend beyond your balance sheet and into the lives of the people who desperately need your products and services. Change, in any form, can be difficult, but a little preparation can go a long way in ensuring a smooth transition.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a journalist before leaving the newsroom to become a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as a consultant for CU Breakthrough, a service ... Web: Details