More Scrutiny For 'Most Highly Scrutinized' Program Most

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When California and Nevada's credit unions meet this week for the leagues' annual meeting at Disneyland they'll be doing more than just debating whether to tap their personal home equity lines to visit the Magic Kingdom or California Adventure: they'll be voting on whether to re-up on an ambitious, expensive, year-old media campaign aimed at boosting the CU profile in the two states not just with consumers, but especially with lawmakers.

The $6-million effort has involved radio advertising in 28 different markets with support on a more limited basis from newspaper ads in the respective state capitals and key legislative districts. The message consistently pounds home the theme that all consumers benefit from credit unions. The newspaper ads are very effective in their simplicity, using a "Recycle" theme to show how funds are returned to communities (see ad, right).

A year ago when the leagues met in, appropriately enough, Las Vegas, the dice was rolled and credit unions voted on invoicing themselves for a special assessment to underwrite the campaign. In some cases, among the largest CUs, the assessment was more than their annual league dues. Dues increases are usually as popular as rabid bankers at CU meetings, but it passed, and it seems likely the assessment will again be approved. It helps that the leagues recently announced a dues reduction, that some will see a decrease in their assessment for the advocacy campaign, and that new research shows the ads are accomplishing what they set out to do.

"Overall, credit unions have supported the message that credit unions are good for members and non-members alike," said league spokesperson Henry Kertman. "For some credit unions it has allowed them to change their own messages and do more product and service advertising. A lot of members have come into their credit union and said, 'I heard your message on the radio.' "

Strata Research in San Diego, which is tracking the campaign, reported that nearly one-million voters had indicated they were familiar with the message and had been swayed to the credit union point of view. Showing how difficult it can be to cut through clutter, the research found 68% of consumers were unaware of the ads. The league has been sharing the research findings with credit unions at a series of meetings in the weeks leading up to the annual.

"People are hearing the ads, but it's important to be on the air consistently," said Kertman.

After the league announced its plans a year ago, I noted in this space that there would be one challenge even bigger than getting credit unions to spend money, and that would be to get them to agree on the advertising creative.

"It's probably been the most highly scrutinized and debated credit union program ever, but for all the right reasons," said Kertman. "There have been strong opinions about the advocacy campaign. The overwhelming majority have liked the ad, and most people like at least one of them. But the real key has been how would consumers react. We focus-tested it with members and non-members in five markets. Now we have been able to show (credit unions) the results. People may not like the ads personally, but they like the effectiveness."

During the past 10 months Kertman said many credit unions have stepped forward with good suggestions, among them to make the radio spots available for on-hold messages. The leagues reached an agreement with the voice talent to do just that.

Along the way he said the leagues' have also learned some lessons, especially about the media buy. It has used big ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding to buy space and time and has been able to generate discounts by buying in quantity and committing early in the year. It has obtained special advertising positions, too, as a result. The media buying discounts, combined with funds still in the till, are some of the reasons some CUs will see a smaller assessment for 2006. For everyone else, there is a 10% cap on any increases.

Disclaimer! Don't read on until you brace yourself for the following news: not every credit union has agreed with the decision to fund the public advocacy campaign, and about 30 credit unions (all in California) disaffiliated rather than pay up. About 10 of the disaffiliates have since rejoined.

"Certainly when you have a program as large and costly as this you're not going to get 100% support," said Kertman. "We contine to work with those other credit unions" to get them to rejoin.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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