The Frankie Awards

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The Inagurual Winner: Suncoast Schools

What is a credit union? And how do you explain the concept?

The Credit Union Journal has challenged its readers to answer those two questions in late 2004 as part of our first-ever Frankie Awards.

While the name of the awards program may be open to some improvement, the goal was to explore how some credit unions have responded to one of the most perplexing and challenging issues facing them: credit unions are simply a better option for most consumers, yet explaining the basic premise isn't so simple.

Indeed, many CUs and the credit union community itself has fumbled their responses. One need only see the findings of survey after survey indicating that most people don't understand what a credit union is, including members and even employees. This point of differentiation should be key to credit union marketing efforts, not to mention efforts to educate the mass media and elected officials at a time when banks are more than happy to do it for them.

The Credit Union Journal received dozens of responses to our challenge, and below are some of the most effective, interesting and thoughtful.

Some credit unions have taken a very simple but effective approach. At West Texas Credit Union in El Paso, for instance, there is a mirror hanging on one wall on the lobby by which members often pass. Across the top of the mirror is the simple statement: Meet the owner of this credit union."

But others have taken on the broader challenge of not just informing members, but the general public, as well.

The winner of the inaugural 2006 Frankie Award is Suncoast Schools FCU in Tampa, Fla.

The credit union has sponsored a brand advertising campaign aimed at educating the community about the differences between credit unions and banks and to "demonstrate why Suncoast is a smart place to keep money," according to Patti Hinton Barrow, VP-marketing. This is the second year Suncoast has used the approach in the 15 counties it serves. The campaign includes print, television and billboards (see related story, page 4).

In announcing the Frankies, The Credit Union Journal stressed that simplicity would be heavily weighted, and the economy of the message from Suncoast Schools was a big factor in its selection. Its billboard consists of eight simple words: "We return profits to you. Does your bank?"

In a newspaper ad that deserves an award for the clean presentation of typography as much as it does the message, the credit union states, "Let's begin with the concept of being a member of a credit union versus a customer of a bank" (see add, facing page).

Every credit union in its Tampa Bay market should thank Suncoast Schools FCU, by the way, since the brand it's promoting isn't the Suncoast Schools message as much as it is the credit union message.

Suncoast Schools was by no means the only credit union to turn to mass media with its message; it just did it most effectively. Other Frankie Award entries also used advertising, as well as employing PowerPoint presentations, radio, and lessons for students.

Perhaps it's something in the "sun." Among the two runners-up for the Frankie Awards was an ad from SunWest FCU, which urges consumers to "Think Outside the Bank" in its advertising (see ad, page 11).

Another Frankie Award runner-up was a brochure from University of Michigan CU. Jim Kirk of the UMCU said the credit union offers members and prospective members a brochure entitled "Credit Unions and Banks-Discover the Difference." The brochure offers side-by-side comparison of topics such as "Type of Business" (for-profit vs. non-profit), "Owners" (stockholders vs. members), "Rates and Fees," said Kirk.

But the effort isn't just limited to brochures at the old Maize and Blue CU. Kirk said all new employees receive training on Credit Union history and philosophy, beginning with the Rochedale Society and the work of Raiffeisen, Desjardins, Filene, and Bergengren. If you suspect those four might be the original members of the Monkeys, you might want to stop by UMCU.

Kirk added that it also stresses the educational and social responsibilities of credit unions to its staff, and its website ( also contains a section on "What is a Credit Union."

Stressing the fundamentals isn't limited to natural-person (another term that needs explanation) credit unions. Corporate credit unions also do some preaching, including the largest (non-U.S. Central) corporate, WesCorp. Sheri Ledbetter said she developed a two page document originally for use when working Capitol Hill, when she often found herself "having to spend time educating folks on what a corporate credit union is before I could get to the point to talk about the issues."

That two-page document has been turned into a PowerPoint presentation that is shown at new employee orientations.

Beth A. Bruesch, general manager and CEO of Mitchell & District Credit Union in Mitchell, Ontario, Canada (which exported credit unions to the U.S., by the way), said she defines credit unions this way: "A credit union is a group of community minded people who have joined together to form a democratically controlled financial co-operative to ensure access to fair and reasonable loans, savings and other financial services for all."

John Vardallas, a Madison, Wis.-based consultant and speaker who can be found at, offered this take: "A credit union is a different type of financial institution that helps members manage their finances using a 'people helping people' not for profit, not for charity but for service philosophy.

"It's a financial institution owned by its members who share a common bond and where all can benefit collectively," he continued. "A credit union is a place that really cares about its members' financial well being."

And Vardallas adds a line that offers a perspective I haven't heard before: " A credit union is an experience that only its members can experience."

A briefer, wittier explanation of credit unions comes from, where else, England. Lynne Webb of Landsker Community Credit Union in Wales in the UK forwarded this suggestion: "We save, we borrow, we benefit!"

That slogan isn't the only one proffered by Webb that's worthy of a bumper sticker. Paste this one to your car: "C U sooner than L8TR - it's for you and those you love!"

Keeping the theme alive, Terri Simon of Processors Industrial Credit Union said she answers the question of what a credit union is this way: "Credit Unions-A credit union is a financial institutions that once you join you will be able to C that U are their main focus. Credit Unions, unlike other financial institutions, focus on what they can do for you not what you can do for the credit union."

Rachel Parent, the Community Education Specialist at Vantage Credit Union in Missouri who also chairs the National Youth Involvement Board, said that when she's in front of students she explains the bank/credit union difference this way: "Credit unions offer the same services and products as banks, but they are non-profit. Which basically means if you are charged for something at the credit union it's because it either cost the credit union money or they don't want you to do it again (on-line bill payer and. NSF fees, respectively). Credit unions are owned by the people who use them, the owners are all equal in their influence on credit union decisions. Banks are owned by stockholders who may not have accounts there and their influence is based on how much they own.

"And lastly, credit unions are exclusive, not everyone can belong to every credit union. (I use Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as an example of exclusivity.) Since opening an account with a credit union makes you an owner, they want to make sure you have something in common with their other owners. Banks are not exclusive, because they know when you open an account you have no influence on their decisions. And, the more people they get in the door, the more profit they can make."

In South Haven, Mich., John P. Peterson of Consumer Credit Union, offered this: "A credit union is a financial institution that is owned by its members....a true democratically controlled organization that is dedicated to the well being of its membership."

One respondent to our challenge, perhaps demonstrating one can bring too much religious zeal to credit unionism, said he answers the question this way: "W.W.J.D. = Where Would Jesus Deposit?"

Chris Pollan, of Starkville, Miss.-based Pollan & Associates, said he has been using the same definition for the past decade: "A credit union is a democratically controlled, not-for-profit, financial cooperative with a volunteer board of directors that is elected by the membership who owns the credit union. In addition to the cooperative spirit and structure of credit unions, they generally offer better service, better rates (loans & savings), lower fees, and help meet the consumer needs better than other financial alternatives available, i.e., banks, s&ls, finance companies, title loan shops, pay day lenders, check cashers, pawn shops, etc.

Also across the pond, Ann Wyllie, a credit union development educator in Renfrewshire, said she likes the following quote because it "makes people smile at the simplicity and truth of a day gone by and I feel it epitomizes the true meaning and heart of credit union."

"A credit union is a form of brotherly love. You simply take what extra money you have, your savings in your sock, and let your neighbors use it for a while, only you don't demand his or her right arm as security."

- Rev. Dr James Tomkins, Nova Scotia

Julianne Talley, conference director with the Florida Credit Union League in Tallahassee, turns to Webster's for her definition of what makes a credit union a credit union. She cites several definitions of both words and finds they add up to more than the sum total of their letters.

Credit: Good name: Esteem, prestige, honor and character, believe, trust Credit: pay-later system, financial status, balance in account, Union: Unification, blending, joining together in agreement "Combining these definitions I believe an excellent explanation of what a credit union is to members, non-members or the press," she said, observing that a credit union is a "unification and blending of people joining together in agreement to offer and support a pay-later system, a financial system and an investment system based on honor and character with the emphasis on the people, not the institution."

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