A CU Branch Is No Apple Store, And That's OK, If...

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MADISON, Wis.-There is little debate over which is more appealing to consumers, a sleek Apple store, or a financial institution branch with people standing 15 deep and waiting on a teller.

The latter can learn from the former, according to a trio of experts on branding, but first must come to grips with that other "B" word, noted Paul Seibert, vice president of financial services for EHS Designs.

Siebert said that financial institutions face a different branding challenges than traditional retail outlets, admitting that one of the biggest is that "banking is pretty boring," and can be difficult to package in a way that entices consumers.

Still, he pointed to Apple's popular retail stores as an example that financial institutions can look to in the way those outlets embrace both technology and people skills. Customers are met by a concierge, and "you feel like you're being taken care of and that this is going to be simple to understand, even though this is very high tech," Seibert said. "This is key for branching; how do you greet people when they walk in? Do they feel smart when they come in? Do they feel confident about what this experience is going to be like?"

Seibert, along with others in this story, offered their insights during BankerStuff's "Trends in Retail Branch Branding and Design" webinar.

Weber Marketing Group President and CEO Mark Weber concurred, adding that these retail outlets were a big shift for Apple, embracing an aesthetic that was pleasing to its younger customer base while maintaining a user-friendly communication style that its older customers were comfortable with.

For example, as many CUs install new kiosks that cannot only perform ATM transactions but also cash and check deposits, bill pay and more, it's important, he said, to be sure that members aren't overwhelmed by technology and that those transactions still have a human element-at least in the event human assistance is needed.

The Real Key

"The key is the staff that's in front of this equipment," said Weber. "They have to be a special kind of person-they've got to be someone who can engage will with the people that come through that space, because otherwise it's just a row of ATMs."

Branding consultant Paul J. Lucas-a frequent contributor to Credit Union Journal -noted that brand image and messaging has to speak directly to a consumer and easily communicate the values and benefits of that brand.

One of the inherent challenges for credit unions, he added, is that many people don't know what a credit union is, whereas a bank has no such hurdle. So CU branding has to not only communicate the institution's message, but also entice new members through the door.

Lucas cited both Navy Federal Credit Union in Virginia and State Employees Credit Union in North Carolina as examples of organizations with solid branding. "They speak about the value and benefits to their members very, very well," said Lucas. But, he added, those are the two largest CUs in the country and "the smaller the credit union, the harder [branding] is."

There is never an easy fix, Lucas noted, and every credit union has different circumstances. But one of the keys is to create branding focused around the future of the institution, and being sure that messaging communicates not only where the organization currently is, but where it plans to go.

Everything from a credit union's name to its logo, tagline and marketing materials all have to support that vision of where the brand is going, stressed Lucas. "If not, you don't have a brand-you just have a name that doesn't mean anything."

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