What's Your Story?

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What is your credit union's story?

No, not the one about the handful of factory workers who each threw five dollars into a cigar box and chartered the credit union. Instead, the story that tells your members and prospects what your organization is about and why they should listen to it.

"If you tell a story, a story can be told and retold with power and passion," Randy Harrington told the CUNA Marketing Council meeting here.

Harrington, president of Eugene, Ore.-based Extreme Arts & Sciences, said it is imperative that credit unions understand their story and that marketers convey that story. There is great hunger among consumers for such narrative, he said, adding that no credit union can have the much-heralded "brand" if it doesn't know its story.

"Narrative is all over the place and it's all around you, if you open your eyes to it," he told the group. "But I think we've lost a little bit of our narrative sense, even though there is great appetite for great stories."

Harrington said that the first question he asks every executive with whom he does coaching is, "What is your story? Until this is answered, everything else is secondary," he said. "It brings a dimension to your presence. If your story is compelling it is retold by others. Great stories are like spiderwebs-they are connected."

The second question every credit union needs to ask, he said, is "What is THEIR story?" That question seeks to get to the heart of what the member values in a way that is "more than just statistics," said Harrington.

Stories, he said, do the following: Connect people, explain motives and values, span time, are memorable, are retold, and tap into passion, imagination and mystery."

"A great credit union marketing story really says that it's all about service to the member," said Harrington. "Are your stories conveying motive?"

Harrington said the most common experience he has in walking into credit union stories is someone greeting him with a yawn and an unenthusiastic, "Welcome to our credit union." At others he said the experience is downright "freaky," with over-enthusiastic kumbaya-singing zealots rejoicing about "people helping people."

"You're looking for a way to have passion and imagination with legitimacy," he stressed. "There's not much of a story in a number in an ad. It' can't be about price and rate. It has to be about something else. Narrative is the essential component of the brand."

Branding, or the credit union brand, is something that is being much discussed but which "most people don't get," according to Harrington. "Loyalty exists as a behavior tied to stories," he said. "The experience of loyalty is fundamentally rooted in a story. If you're going to change your culture, you must change your story."

Harrington readily acknowledged that many of the marketers at the conference would return home gung-ho about making changes and moving forward, only to be eventually beaten back by the culture of their credit union.

"There is tremendous resistance to culture and change," he observed. "If your brilliant idea does not resonate with the culture, the culture always wins."

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