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The competition in the financial market place is constantly growing, changing and evolving. It's no longer just the bank down the street-its eloan.com, ditech.com, Countrywide and Charles Schwab, just to name a few.

Most consumers select financial institutions based on convenience. What can credit unions do to attract consumers? Just like great retailers, brand image is vital to success. Why image? An image gives a first impression. It is a visual description that illustrates whether your financial institution is progressive, traditional, high tech, or "hip."

In your mind's eye, envision the majestic entrance with fluted columns, the solidity of polished wood doors, the cool elegance of marble floor-these images of the traditional financial place offer the consumer a sense of strength and stability. The perception of the "pillar of strength in the community" may be paramount to the consumer. But credit unions need to be au courant with our dynamic retail environment. Their image must be adapted to the personality and psychological needs of the consumer. It should be designed in a manner that will enhance your efforts to cross-sell and build relationships within the area you serve.

All designs begin with inspiration. Inspiration puts the "punch" in a cool look; it adds the sparkle and the edginess that gives a concept a "wow" factor. A strong concept creates a vocabulary and enhances image and environment. An idea can spring not only from inspirational sources like a great mountain view or from a hip, youth-oriented clientele, but also can develop from a paint color, a fabric pattern or a carpet texture.

How do you want to be perceived? Why not develop a concept that creates and enhances your image and its environment? From there your interior designer will develop a color palette, select fabrics, floor coverings and casework to enhance and translate the "story." The goal is to provide an environment that creates a positive image and encourages consumers to visit.

What Good Retailers Know

Successful retailers such as Nike, Bloomingdales and Nordstrom know that good design complimented by proper lighting, dynamic graphics and pleasing colors enhance merchandising and prompt the consumer to buy- increasing profit and improving market brand image. In the financial industry, the products and services offered have a generic look due to their inherent nature-mortgages, auto loans, retirement plans. Just as J. Crew or Banana Republic evoke a definitive lifestyle in order to differentiate them in the retail world, today's credit union must develop a distinctive brand and retail environment to keep one step ahead in the increasingly competitive financial race.

Vermont State Employees Credit Union, for instance, knew the direction they wanted to go, but they were not sure how to get there. After brainstorming with DEI and giving our creative team the freedom to design their environment, VSECU's fresh, new concept gave them a progressive, unique look in a traditional region. They were able to apply this new retail concept and design to other branches and, as a result, they developed their brand image and have seen a dramatic increase in membership and in loans.

The "Green Mountain State" served as inspiration for VSECU's brand vocabulary. The beauty of the state and the outdoor lifestyle of many of VSECU's members was the seed of imagination that grew the brand tagline "Our Focus is You," and the graphic stylizing that uses focused and unfocused imagery.

VSECU is also integrating new technology into its branches, such as the Studio Teller, a high-tech teller system that uses pneumatic tubes, a camera and monitor, and a telephone to transact business between a member service representative and a member. If members feel uncomfortable using the high-tech Studio Teller, member service consultants will provide that personal touch and transact business at their desks, which is also equipped with pneumatic tubes. A Tech Caf? features VSECU's electronic banking platform, PC Express Bank On-Line and complimentary coffee service.

"We wanted to create an environment that members could use as a financial resource center where member service consultants could help them research the services that will best meet their needs," explained Steve Post, VSECU President.

Why Different Designs?

Although the approach to designing facilities is often similar, each client is unique (i.e., demographics, location, etc.). Therefore, the design of their branch is also unique compared to their competitors. The initial research and strategic planning done prior to designing a facility leads to different designs.

For instance, the process was approached the same way for ORNL Federal Credit Union, which is located in Oak Ridge National Laboratories-a high-security facility housing scientists, office staff and high-technology equipment. However, the specific information about the location and membership-base resulted in a truly original and dynamic design that provides ORNL's new branch with a fresh, new look by updating their technology, incorporating retail elements and establishing a branch identity.

Since the opening of this branch in early September 2003 through mid-November, 66 new memberships opened 34 new checking accounts, and this branch generated $516,000 in new loans. ORNL FCU now has a 90%-plus penetration at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

According to John McKittrick, President of ORNL FCU, "Our members are amazed and pleased with this office. The location is more than just another branch-it has become a destination. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is in the midst of a rebirth and we are definitely viewed as one of the bright spots."

The design criteria for VSECU and ORNL are inherently different and unique due to the demographics of the region and clientele. VSECU caters to state workers and employees. ORNL is geared toward high-tech scientific lab workers in Tennessee. But the end results- clean design elements-are the same.

Andrea Simler-DeGolier is retail coordinator with DEI, Cincinnati Ohio. For more information: www.dei-corp.com

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