If You've Have Been To Busy To Notice, Look Again

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Chances are when it comes to your in-box there's "No Room at the In." You've got too much to read (which is why The Credit Union Journal's concise reporting format has always been so popular with CU CEOs), and then there's all the e-mail, phone calls and people who don't get the hint even when you're running away from them in the parking lot.

As a result, you may not have noticed some common threads in recent Journal stories that can be woven together to create an emerging tapestry worthy of your attention. For instance:

* Over the past few years there's been more branding going on among credit unions than at a rodeo. It seems every credit union has embarked on some kind of a branding initiative, usually in the wake of a name change to some moniker to which members feel no real connection. In nearly every case, the effort involves trying to sear the "brand" in the mind of the member, who just happens to be subjected to similar searing exercises by thousands of other brands every day.

One of the best ideas related to branding that I've heard in a long time comes from Truliant Federal Credit Union in North Carolina (itself a name change from the former AT&T Family FCU). While so many branding efforts essentially boil down to "remember our name," Truliant's new initiative seeks to go far deeper by essentially driving the point, "Remember what we are."

CEO Marcus Schaefer said the campaign is being themed along the lines of "I am a member, I am a voice." When a member calls to compliment the credit union on a great auto loan rate, for instance, employees don't just say "thanks" and let the opportunity go down the drain: they remind the member that that auto loan rate is made possible by the concept of ownership in the credit union.

"We must remind ourselves why we're in business," said Schaefer. "Most people just don't understand it. We will probably never in our careers have the luxury of not spending time talking about the difference."

* If you disagree with Schaefer and believe spending time talking about the difference between a bank and a credit union is just more of that foo-foo philosophical stuff, take a closer look at some of the findings of a giant study done by Forrester Research (CU Journal, Sept. 1)

In its most recent study, Forrester was examining attitudes toward what it calls "Customer Advocacy," that is the perception that the financial institution is offering products and services that are in the best interest of the customer-member. You'd think credit unions would run away with that title, right? Wrong. When it asked Americans about their financial institution and whether it is looking out for them, credit unions didn't medal, finishing fifth (as an industry), behind four other big providers: BB&T, Merrill Lynch, Fidelity Investments and the Vanguard Group.

What's amazing isn't just that credit unions got licked by a big bank holding company and three brokerages, but that you would expect to see some residual anger toward the brokerages over the burst-balloon performance of mutual funds and stocks. Apparently these four providers are providing for customers in such a way that they are seen to be well, like a credit union.

Despite these high-performers, one lesson Forrester Research said can be drawn from the study is that the "price of growth is loyalty." And credit unions have grown like the national debt, especially through community charters, which may be an effective means of adding potential new members but are a very ineffective means of building any loyalty. After all, when it's easy in, it's also easy out.

* There was another very interesting finding in Forrester Research's study, and that was that 7.7% of credit union members agreed with the statement: "My primary financial provider offers me products and services that are best for its bottom line, not mine." That deserves note for two reasons: nearly 8% of members could be a substantial number of people at some of the largest credit unions (but more problematic for the smaller), and two, it drives home why the branding campaign at Truliant is such on-target strategy: by definition, the credit union's bottom line and the member's should be one and the same (with the exception of bankrupts and abusers). Anyone who sees those goals as mutually exclusive has no idea what he or she "belongs" to or how the credit union operates.

The California league noted recently that its research had found that only one in two people could name a local credit union, and only one in five know what a credit union is. This week in Reno CUNA will host its "Future Forum," the new name for its annual meeting. If indeed there is a future for credit unions in which to hold forums, a lot more credit unions and their trade groups need to pay heed (as Truliant has) to the fact that even the largest tapestries start with one thread.

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

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