How Desert Financial – and Alice Cooper – rewrote the book on CU ads

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Explosions, guillotines, Burmese pythons and Alice Cooper aren’t the stuff of your everyday credit union commercial – unless you’re Desert Financial CU. And it’s an ad one expert says may be the best TV commercial in credit union history.

The $4.3 billion-asset CU changed its name late last year from Desert Schools to Desert Financial, and was looking for a way to make a splash. Enter Alice Cooper, the legendary shock rocker behind the classic song “School’s Out.”

“I was driving home from work one day and my brain is on fire with the rebrand and what we could do that would be a cool Super Bowl commercial, and it just kind of came together,” recalled Cathy Graham, SVP and chief marketing officer at the credit union. “It was a spark – just how amazing would it be to get Alice Cooper singing ‘School’s Out’?” Not only did the song fit with the rebrand, but Cooper lives in Arizona and is a local celebrity, she added. “It had so much synergy; once the idea came, how could we not do this?”

What began as Graham's pipe dream came to life with the help of Anderson Advertising.

“He’s such a larger-than-life personality,” said Graham. “He’s a showman, his shows are over the top, and when they came in and pitched me the script I almost fell out of my chair.”

The spot begins with two young men at a Desert Schools ATM, where they’re greeted by Cooper telling them from inside the machine that the CU has rebranded. And that’s about as tame as the ad gets. From there the pair venture inside the credit union, complete with guillotine, explosions, pythons and a full-on Alice Cooper performance, all of which emphasizes the fact that the word “Schools” is out of the CU’s name.

Long lead-up

The commercial aired regionally on Super Bowl Sunday, but the process began months before that. Graham came up with the concept in late summer – when the name change was already in the works but had not yet been announced – and the script was completed and the concept shopped to different production companies in September. But Cooper wasn’t available until his latest world tour wrapped up in early December, and on Dec. 17 he was on set with the credit union.

“Ten days off from a world tour and he puts in a 10-hour day to shoot this,” recalled Graham.

While Cooper was reportedly very enthusiastic about being a part of the ad, he wasn’t sitting by the phone waiting for Desert Schools to call him.

“From July or August until early December, he was touring – he was in Brazil, Japan, Europe, the U.S., so it was questionable whether we’d be able to do this and get it done and produced and ready to air in time, because he was all over the world,” said Graham. “Getting ahold of him was a challenge, but once we got a hold of him and he knew what the concept was, he was on board.”

It helped, she added, that the concept was designed around recreating Cooper’s stage shows and played to his persona.

“When he came on set and saw what we had put together,” she said, “he said ‘This looks like it could legitimately be in an Alice Cooper stage show.’”

Alice Cooper did not respond to an interview request from Credit Union Journal.

Sensitive to educators

Graham said the credit union received “tons” of positive feedback on the commercial – “If you were a Desert Financial employee, that night when the ad ran, your phone blew up,” she said – and it was viewed more than 30,000 times on YouTube the day after it aired. Additionally, the credit union saw a 50 percent increase in account opening sessions online in the days after the spot ran.

But there was one group whose response Desert Financial reps paid particular attention to. The credit union was particularly attuned to how its original sponsor group responded to both the new name and the commercial.

Graham said CU leaders had extensive discussions about the message both the ad and the new name would send to educators. In order to ensure that teachers and others associated with area schools didn’t feel they were being abandoned by the credit union, DFCU took a number of proactive moves, including consulting with other CUs that have removed educator-specific verbiage from their names, along with creating a specific page on the website about their continued commitment to education and setting aside funds from a debit card program in January for a special teacher appreciation event.

“We put aside two cents per transaction and now we have a pool of $120,000 to give to each of our 45 branches, and they’ll go to schools and do teacher appreciation lunches,” she explained. “We wanted to be sure we were demonstrating our continued appreciation and care for teachers” in case viewers saw the spot and had questions about whether the credit union still served and supported schools.

Best ever?

Not only was the spot a hit with viewers, but according to credit union marketing consultant Paul Lucas, it could set a new standard for the industry.

“I think it’s brilliant,” he said. “It’s probably the best credit union TV ad I’ve ever seen in terms of being memorable and funny and cutting edge.”

One thing CUs have to consider when doing any sort of advertising, noted Lucas – and especially spots with celebrities – is the demographic.

“Alice Cooper was [popular] when I was in college – I know who he is and I get it,” said Lucas. "So I guess that’s the only question: What demographic are they tying it to? If their average age is in the upper 50s and that’s who they’re trying to reach, then OK. But my guess is millennials don’t know who he is.”

And that’s the key for credit unions, he added.

“If you’re going to do an ad like that on TV, what’s the average age of your potential member or potential person who could be a member that’s going to be watching that ad? Then break that down and that raises a lot of questions.”

One of the big questions surrounding the high-profile commercial was the price tag.

“People hear ‘Super Bowl ad’ and they think ‘At least $1 million,' ” noted Graham, quickly adding, “This was nowhere near $1 million.” Though she would not go into detail on the financial side of the project, she said the final cost was “about 50 percent more than a regular ad,” in part because of the high production values and visual effects, as well as getting Cooper on board and paying for song rights.

“We’ve never done anything of this scale before,” she added. “We think our rebrand is the perfect opportunity to do that. Knowing that he’s local and the nature of our name change, it made business sense to do this. Some people are asking if we’re going to do a Super Bowl ad every year; I don’t know if that makes sense. For the rates the Super Bowl gets, we’re in a market with 4 million people in it. Even if half of the population was watching the Super Bowl and half of those were getting up to get more pizza when the ad ran, we’re still estimating 1 million people during the Super Bowl could’ve seen the ad. I don’t know a way to get in front of 1 million people in this market and get their attention and get them talking about us. It made a ton of sense to do this for the rebrand.”

Lucas concurred.

“TV and radio is all about production value,” he said. “You need to be able to spend money on production for good radio and TV – especially TV. There’s nothing as powerful as TV [advertising], even today … TV is still huge today if you can do it right, but it comes down to production costs.”

And the reason Desert Financial’s Super Bowl ad was so effective, he added, is that the spot works even if viewers don’t know who Alice Cooper is.

With the commercial finished and getting rave reviews, Desert Schools has its next big challenge – bringing on a celebrity member. Cooper hasn’t yet joined the credit union, quipped Graham, “but we’re working on changing that!”

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