If you’re like most credit unions, your marketing has been all about triage over the past, chaotic, few weeks.
You’ve doubled down on digital tools, told your members about closed branch lobbies and new drive-thru services, communicated refined loan offerings, and explained skip-a-payment programs. You’ve worked hard to keep members in the loop and strike the right tone and message in these uncertain times.
But, now what?
At a time when even your most financially stable members are feeling vulnerable, every marketing message, campaign, and touch point needs to hone in on one key message: “We’re here to help our community navigate the financial stress of COVID-19.”
Why this one message and not “we’re all in this together”? Because the reality is that we’re not. This isn’t one pandemic, it’s a multitude of pandemics. And, different groups — hourly workers, those with savings, parents, single people, people with underlying conditions, health care workers, and more — are being affected very differently. Callahan & Associates, in partnership with Gallup, notes that over 58% of credit union members feel financial disruption affecting them directly. This is higher than for the general population, and the members most affected by the crisis feel the least supported by their credit union. This research found that “people who don’t think their credit union cares about them are less likely to take advantage of available resources, less likely to employ those resources in an optimal way, and less likely to reach out for help before things become desperate.”
It has never been more critical for our members to know that we have their back and that we are here to support them, emotionally and financially.
Leading with a cause—why it’s more important than ever
There’s strong evidence consumers and employees want to engage with organizations that strive to make a difference.  Credit unions have always been about “people helping people” and “people before profits,” and we’ve long said that how you serve your community should be an integral part of your credit union’s brand.
There’s no better time to focus on cause marketing – and no “cause” more critical than helping members deal with COVID-19.
Consumers are acutely aware of how organizations are responding to this crisis and holding them to a high standard. The Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic just released by Edelman, a global communications firm, revealed the following:
- 90% of global consumers believe brands should protect their employees and suppliers and tackle social struggles during the coronavirus pandemic.
- 69% of US participants say a brand would lose their trust forever if they witness it valuing profits over people during the pandemic.
- 61% say a brand’s response during the crisis will have a major effect on whether or not they’ll purchase from it in the future.
COVID-19 is our collective cause and any other marketing message feels tone deaf. Putting COVID-19 front and center will ensure your marketing message is relevant and on-point—and play a role in your credit union’s short- and long-term success.
Ready to get started? The 3 C’s provide a great foundation.
#1 – Core Focus
Put your proposed messages to a pandemic-centered, core focus test.
Deliver a message that’s clear, concise and easy to understand. This is a time of enormous stress. Be straightforward, positive, and uplifting. Regardless of your pre-crisis brand position, now isn’t the time for marketing messages that are clever, whimsical, humorous or complicated.
Look to distinguish vs. differentiate. Figuring out how to differentiate yourself in the sea of competitors, including other credit unions, used to be the hardest thing for a credit union to do. But, now the credit union mission — people helping people, being there for our members — is the perfect message, because the goal is not to differentiate yourself in your marketing, it’s to distinguish yourself.
Be authentic. Don’t just say you’re supporting members during the crisis, prove it. For instance, if you promise hard-hit members a fast turnaround and affordable personal loans, you need a robust online application and appropriate underwriting standards.
Make your message relevant to members and the larger community. Your members are worried and it’s your job to reassure them. Don’t let fear and uncertainty shut down your communication efforts. “Silence is one of those deadly things,” stressed Casey Boggs, president of ReputationUS, a PR firm.
Be sure to do the following:
- Pull irrelevant content from your home page. “If your banner on the front page is talking about home equity rates, or something that just masks the pressure of what’s really going on here, it really just sends a bad message that you are not all in,” said Boggs. “(Members are thinking) ‘I need some kind of strength here, and my money is with you. Give people a sense of comfort and be a beacon of (fiscal) health.”
- Listen to members. Jim Morrell, CEO of Peninsula Community Federal Credit Union in Puget Sound, Washington, was at the early epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 crisis. “At first we were anticipating what we could do for them, which really didn’t meet their needs. We came to realize that personal finance is a lot more personal than it is finance.”
- Leverage the power of small. “Getting a few hundred extra bucks into people’s pockets may not seem like a lot, but to the individual consumers, it means everything,” said George Hofheimer, executive vice president of research and development at Filene Research Institute.
Maryland’s SECU Credit Union created a matching grant pool of $300,000 to be dispersed via $500 grants; grant recipients had to show their need was specifically linked to the pandemic. “We had to balance what was a sizable amount to make an impact with spreading it to as many members as we can,” said Becky Smith, EVP, chief strategy and marketing officer at SECU.
#2 – Commitment to Transparency
Ask the average credit union how they make an impact on their community, and many struggle to answer that question. In fact, according to our friends at Filene Research Institute, none of the credit unions they interviewed for a recent report (Choosing Relevance: How Credit Unions Can Harness Transparency and Show Impact) had:
- Quantified the role and impacts of the credit union and its members
- Compared its impact priorities with the objectively known needs of its members and community
- Developed a robust set of sustainability goals and metrics
In short, credit unions don’t tend to truly understand or share their own impact.
Now is a good time to start. Borrow a page from Callhan, which recently urged credit unions to redefine success around the following metrics:
- Employee physical, mental, and financial wellbeing. Most credit unions compete on service and that starts with the people who make you unique. As we navigate through this, how are our teams doing? Is there more we can be doing to support their wellbeing?
- Member physical, mental, and financial wellbeing. How are we investing in helping members navigate this unprecedented time of uncertainty? How do we know if we are actively being part of the solution?
- Community health and stability. For most credit unions, the communities (both geographic and SEG/common bonds) they operate in are suffering. Small businesses may need a helping hand, community organizations need assistance, and people need to feel their wellbeing matters, especially when it is safe to go back outside and start rebuilding bonds.
Consider picking one or two metrics in each bucket, report on them publicly and organize your strategy around them.
Another tool that can help: The Sustainable Development Goals Tracker from B Lab. This assessment tool will help you determine the impact your credit union has on your employees, your community, your members and the environment, and provide feedback that compares you to other organizations and provides a path to improvement, all based on 17 goals that the United Nations set for collectively creating a better world in 2030.
“Credit unions have a great track record around serving (underserved) communities,” said Hofheimer. “Now is the time … to show … credit unions can be a shining light in a pretty dark world.”
#3 – Communicate Memorably
Make this marketing checklist (courtesy of the Harvard Business Review) your go-to:
- Simple and inspiring messaging. Understand community needs and convey your commitment to help.
- Strong visual storytelling. Use a powerful image or video to pull your audience in.
- A physical element or exhibit. During this “Safer at Home” period, this might mean direct mail or an appropriate presence at grocery stores and similar.
- Strong emphasis on social sharing and earned media. Invest time and resources in an ongoing social media campaign that leverages tools appropriate for each channel and commit to delivering credible, valuable content.
- Focus on a big issue coupled with a request for a small personal action. Action = buy-in.
The big take-away from this list: The goal of your marketing efforts isn’t simply to inform members, it’s to engage and reassure them.
Here’s an opportunity to consider: Proactive, ongoing communication with your members–say every week or two–that provides specific tips for navigating the financial aspects of the pandemic. It’s not just about explaining how online banking works, or letting people know that you have a crisis loan (though this is good!), it’s also about explaining how to stretch their stimulus check, effective ideas for managing expenses, and what to do if they can’t get a response from the unemployment office.
We’re all dealing with challenging issues in a dynamic and frightening environment and none of us has a playbook to work from. Lead with cause marketing messages that convey concern, responsiveness, and stability and you’ll go a long way toward reassuring your members in these uncertain times.
 Meister, J. 2012, June. Corporate social responsibility: A lever for employee attraction & engagement, Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2012/06/07/corporate-social-responsibility-alever-for-employee-attraction-engagement.
as cited by Rochlin, Steve, et. al, 2019. “Project ROI: Defining the Competitive and Financial Advantages of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability” https://www.babson.edu/media/babson/site-assets/content-assets/academics/centers-and-institutes/the-lewis-institute/project-roi/Project-ROI-Report.pdf
 Mintel Nov. 23, 2018 “73% of Americans Consider Companies’ Charitable Work When Making a Purchase” https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/social-and-lifestyle/givingtuesday-73-of-americans-consider-companies-charitable-work-when-making-a-purchase