CUs Buy Into $6-Million Ad Campaign, But Will Consumers?

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Maybe it was because they were meeting in Las Vegas last week that the California/Nevada league announced it was making such a big bet.

Although it's more likely that the league would respond by saying not taking the step it's taking is the real gamble.

As reported on page one, the league is planning to spend $6-million in 2005 and a similar amount the year after that to raise public awareness of what a credit union is. You may have noticed that few consumers ever comment that they need to stop off on the way home from work in order to conduct a transaction at a not-for-profit, democratically run, financial cooperative.

The league is hoping to change that, and not because it's nice to have people understand the work you do or even because it is seeking to boost membership. Instead, the league's public advocacy campaign is what was dubbed during the recent presidential campaign a "pre-sponse"-in this case, to the aggressive bank attacks in Sacramento that credit unions are anticipating in 2005.

"We've been under attack by the bankers for most of my nearly 40 years in the credit union movement, but it's never been this intense, vicious or well-coordinated before," the league's CEO, Dave Chatfield, said. "And make no mistake. They're not just after some of us-they're after all of us."

But banks have been after credit unions from the day FDR signed the Federal Credit Union Act. What makes the situation different now, according to the league, is research showing that by a 2-to-1 margin, non-members favor revocation of the tax exemption over members, because, frankly, to them a credit union is just another tax-dodging, job-outsourcing, fat cat shirking its duty.

Prior to the vote at the annual meetings of the California and Nevada leagues last week, there was some discussion in the hallways that there might be criticisms and tough questions raised during a Q&A with the advocacy task force one day prior to that vote, and that opponents of the plan might even be able to shoot it down. Neither panned out. The Q&A stood more for the Quick Action that was advocated by those taking turns at the mike, and the vote went smoothly. (That wasn't the only thing to not pan out: in the hands-down winner for Hyperbole of the Year, the league billed the session as, "The most important, must-attend, mind-opening session every offered!")

Yet the vote could turn out to be the easy part, even as the league has already tackled some of the big curveballs, such as don't community CUs benefit more than narrowly-chartered credit unions. That's because now come two combustible elements in the mix: first, the advertising message itself, and second, the tab, which is going to be significant for many credit unions. When it comes to advertising, everyone is an expert and given its subjectivity, everyone is right. If you don't like a TV or radio commercial, then the commercial didn't work in your case.

In the coming weeks the radio spots being developed by ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding will be unveiled and beauty will be in the ear of the beholder.

Once heard, everyone is going to have an opinion and not all are going to be positive. Had I asked a dozen folks at the California/Nevada league meeting how they would explain the differences between a credit union and a bank, I would have gotten a dozen different responses.

Can you even explain those differences in 30 or 60 seconds?

"We've been doing it in our radio and TV ads, and those also include a product ad," said Teresa Freeborn of Kinecta CU, who's leading the task force overseeing the creative.

"This is not a campaign about membership," stressed task force co-chair Patsy Van Ouwerkerk. "This is about awareness."

The bank/credit union fight has often been fought in the mud, but the task force said it will not be dragged in...at least at first. "The key here is to take the high road," suggested Henry Wirz, a task force member and CEO of SAFE FCU. "We want to talk about what is right about credit unions."

But it won't be all about turning the other cheek. "There may be times that we need to correct what the banks say," said Chatfield. "I do not think it is negative to point out where the banks are being hypocritical."

"I think credit unions have made a mistake," continued Wirz, " in responding to banker initiatives in the media, and responses lose some of their credibility. Now the bankers are going to have to respond. We can't win this with dollars, but we can by being first."

The measuring stick in determining who's winning will be in the extensive research (by Strata Research San Diego) that's built into the budget. The group says it will use that research to demonstrate its accountability.

If the research shows its working, or if the creative message plays outside California, then expect to see the ads in other states. That's because the U.S. credit union movement is generally led from the left coast. "We hope this will be a model for other parts of the country," said several members of the task force.

"Another league could buy it," added Chatfield.

But first, consumers have to.

Frank J. Diekmann is Editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann cujournal.com.

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