One CU's Advice: Ask Questions Now, Not Later

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Many credit unions that have been forced to market themselves for the first time due to a charter conversion or other factors have discovered Keryn Marlatt's first rule of branding: don't shoot first and ask questions later.

Marlatt, the senior vice president of planning and service for Las Vegas-based WestStar Credit Union, led an educational session at the recent CUNA Operations, Sales and Service Council conference here.

The CUES Marketer of the Year for 2005 said she arrived in Glitter Gulch 10 years ago from Idaho "raring to go." She wanted to try marketing techniques that were considered too racy for Idaho, and she wanted to get WestStar's message on TV.

"But I couldn't, because the credit union was not ready. It was going through hard times," she recalled. "I had to do a lot of research and educate myself."

WestStar began in 1975 as Howard Hughes Employee's FCU. Throughout the 1980s, the CU added SEGs until it was the credit union for employees of many of the casinos in town. A 1993 merger with Bally's FCU almost doubled its asset size overnight to $72-million, but Marlatt said it also brought turmoil in the form of two CEOs and other overlaps.

As 1999 turned to 2000, WestStar's management decided to narrow the credit union's focus. Marlatt said every credit union must decide if they can be all things to all people. Many have taken on numerous new products and services in recent years, including real estate loans, trusts, investments and small business lending, without knowing exactly what to do.

"Ask questions: What are we doing? What are we doing well? What is special about our credit union," she advised.

The first phase of branding must be research, Marlatt continued. CUs must know what differentiates themselves from others in the market-convenience, value, service or unique products and services. Moreover, she said, they need to understand the area or community they wish to serve.

WestStar's membership focus was clear, but it had its own issues. Gaming employees earn a significant portion of their salaries in cash tips. This makes it hard for them to budget, and difficult for them to save. "Sometimes, they don't know where the money went," said Marlatt.

WesStar's strategy has been to make service be its primary differentiator. Casino workers must provide excellent service to tourists and guests, and WestStar wanted to give them the same treatment.

"Our market is gaming. Other credit unions must decide what the common bond is for their markets. We created a branding statement: 'The Gaming Employees' Credit Union since 1975.' This statement shows longevity- 25 years is a long time in Las Vegas, though it might not be back east-and it shows our common bond."

Surprises From Members

Another key was feedback. Marlatt said management never assumed it knew everything about the market. Instead, WestStar tested the branding statement and logo to make sure the values it wanted to communicate got through. "You may be surprised what your members tell you," she said.

Member suggestions helped the CU focus, Marlatt said. Many of WestStar's members do not know how to balance a checkbook, so financial counseling became a priority. Las Vegas is a 24-hour town, so it offered 24-hour services such as loan-by-phone and touch-tone teller. In addition, many branches extended their hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., at least for drive-thru windows.

The next step was to get the message out. In 2001, WestStar hired a media expert to help it plan its first advertising campaign-which included television, billboards and newspaper ads. The first month of the five-month "blitz" was so successful, Marlatt said the credit unionhad to take the ads down for a month so it could catch up with the numerous new members.

"It exceeded our expectations. Our branches were very busy. New account volume jumped to 789 per month from 486. New accounts from off-site sign-ups increased by 155%."

WestStar has continued to modify its advertising campaign based on feedback from service surveys and focus groups. Marlatt said branding is not a "project," it is a process with a start but no finish. WestStar will be done with its brand, identity and niche when Las Vegas is done growing and changing, which is to say never. "We go back constantly and look at what we are saying."

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