The Super Bowl commercial you won't see

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When Super Bowl LIII kicks off Sunday, viewers are likely to see most of the standard advertisers – beer companies, airlines, major retailers and more. What they probably won’t see, however, is anything related to credit unions.

Some believe that’s a big mistake.

Advertising during one of the biggest sporting events of the year could help credit unions gain widespread exposure, but it can also be expensive. This year a national 30-second spot costs $5.25 million. Given the limits imposed by a field of membership, an ad may reach consumers who aren’t eligible to join the credit union anyway.

“I don’t think it’s an opportunity every credit union can take advantage of, but there’s some where if the budget is there, it’s a prime opportunity to let your hair down and have some fun and show people your brand is human, and do it in a memorable way,” said Bo McDonald, president and CEO of Your Marketing Co., a South Carolina-based firm that works with more than 30 credit unions nationwide.

Desert Financial Credit Union in Phoenix is one believer in advertising during the Super Bowl. It made a big splash last year with a high-profile ad touting its rebrand. Legendary rocker Alice Cooper performed “School’s Out” inside a branch and blew up the institution’s old logo as Desert Schools Credit Union. The spot was broadcast in the Phoenix market and exposed the credit union to more than 2 million people.

The CU was “trying to make it impossible for people to ignore us and [had] to get it out there in a big way,” said Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Graham.

In the month after the Alice Cooper commercial aired, online account openings were up 50 percent, though they eventually tapered off. One year later, membership at the $4.5 billion-asset institution is up by 3.6 percent – a stark increase over some years when the CU would struggle to hit even 1 percent member growth, Graham said.

The rebrand helped with loan growth too. Lending was up 9.7 percent, to more than $2.1 billion, in 2018.

The big ad may have been the focal point of the campaign, but it wasn’t the only element. Graham said the CU followed it up with digital and traditional outdoor billboards, social media and Google AdWords campaigns.

The credit union used “every channel at our disposal,” said Graham. The messaging started with the rebrand before moving on to why consumers would want to join the credit union and then promoting the CU’s free checking product.

While Desert Financial’s rebrand was already underway well before the Super Bowl spot aired, Graham is adamant that the results wouldn’t have been the same without the commercial.

“There wouldn’t have been that buzz,” she said. “It created a level of awareness that I think made people pay attention to the other messages.”

Don’t change the channel

Part of what made Desert Financial stand out last year was the fact that credit union commercials rarely show up in the Super Bowl. Credit Union Journal reached out to a number of CUs and marketing groups that work with the industry and none said they planned to run ads this year.

In some cases, credit union fields of membership are simply too specialized for wide-scale adverting to make sense. That’s the case with Raleigh, N.C.-based State Employees’ Credit Union, which has a membership limited primarily to state employees, educators and their families. The credit union generally does not advertise and instead relies on word of mouth.

“We would pay a lot of money to attract folks who we wouldn’t be able to offer membership to and who would love to join SECU – not a happy prospect to those folks, nor to our staff who would have to explain this,” CEO Mike Lord said about a Super Bowl ad.

Nor will PenFed, the nation’s third-largest credit union, which is in the throes of expansion and recently received a controversial open charter allowing anyone nationwide to join as the result of a merger with New York-based Progressive Credit Union. The same goes for Long Island-based Bethpage Federal Credit Union, which also has a nationwide field of membership.

Other institutions, including Navy Federal Credit Union, have campaigns running currently but haven’t created any ads specifically for the Super Bowl. UNIFY Financial CU, the official credit union of Super Bowl contestants the LA Rams, elected not to run any ads during the game simply because the Los Angeles advertising market is so costly.

And the Credit Union National Association’s “Open Your Eyes” campaign, a years-in-the-works national awareness push, is eschewing the Super Bowl in favor of a more targeted, digital strategy. It recently launched in Minnesota and is set to roll out in other parts of the country in the weeks and months ahead.

But Your Marketing Co.'s McDonald noted that for all the costs associated with even a regional ad buy during the big game, many CUs might feel their resources can be put toward other investments that make a bigger impact on members. And, he said, there are reputational risks.

“The downfall of the industry is we’re nice people – that’s the best part and the worst part of it,” he said. “We don’t want to offend anyone. And when you start talking about marketing, that affects the discussion.”

The worst thing a commercial might do, McDonald said, is cause consumers to say, “I wouldn’t go there because that’s a silly commercial.”

“We tend to err on the side of caution and water things down and get everyone to like us,” he added.

And since many CUs already struggle with their advertising, coming up with something that breaks through amid the glut of Super Bowl ads could be a real challenge. That's part of what fueled Desert Financial with last year's spot, said Graham.

Whatever the credit union did, she said, the commercial had to “stand up against an ad Budweiser is going to do or Doritos is going to do”

In spite of that success, Phoenix-area viewers shouldn’t expect to see another ad from Desert Financial during this year’s big game. Graham said last year the credit union hit the jackpot with the right message at the right time and the right venue for the ad.

But she would still encourage other institutions to consider taking out an ad.

“I would love to think there are more opportunities for credit unions to do this,” said Desert Financial’s Graham. “We could do this because we aren’t stuffy, we’re warm and approachable, and credit unions are like that. There are so many amazing organizations that could do that and have a great experience we did.”

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