Why 1 CU Believes 'Uniqueness' Is Most Powerful CU Brand Message

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"Brand" is the buzzword du jour among many credit unions.

But for one credit union seeking a deeper connection with the concept of brand, it has meant far more than promoting a name-indeed, the name is almost secondary-or getting caught up in echoing the words "people helping people."

"I know lots of financial institutions out there talking about brand," acknowledged Bill Reynard, VP with Truliant Credit Union in North Carolina. "I want to ask you what is your brand. I think our brand is credit union uniqueness."

Reynard said Truliant has been inspired in part by research showing that "Consumers will pick their providers not on operational characteristics-which are converging around similar standards of performance-but on intangible, emotional or personalized interactions."

To that end, Truliant is embarked on an ambitious inside-out effort to convey the value of what a credit union is and what it brings to the member as its brand. Along the way it has challenged some long-held notions espoused by many credit unions and learned lessons about itself.

"Campaigns can be very effective," agreed Reynard in his comments before The Credit Union Journal's SEG & Business Development Conference. "But at the end fo the day it comes down to what is it that you're all about. The same tactics can be used by another competitor tomorrow. In the case of Washington Mutual, in many of their materials they could replace 'Washington Mutual' with 'credit union.'"

Washington Mutual is just one of the new or estalished competitors that Truliant FCU has in its markets. Reynard said the $900-million TFCU also is facing off with the $680-billion Bank of America, which is headquartered in North Carolina, and the $1.3-trillion Citigroup.

So why does anyone use the credit union? Reynard said Truliant asked itself that, and cited a Filene Research Institute study that found courtesy, attitude and professionalism listed as top reasons, as was the affinity between the credit union and a sponsor.

The harder question to ask, he noted, is why don't people use the credit union. In Truliant's case, it found it needed better locations closer to members' homes and work sites, more no-surcharge ATMs, and better savings and loan rates, and better locations close to work. "We looked at our brand from the member perspective," he explained, noting it conducted its own image/communications audit. "We found that our phone menu wasn't very friendly. We found a lot of tactics out of alignment among our 12 business units."

"We asked ourselves, 'We're putting the message out there and telling people to come in and be treated like a member-owner. But when they do, do they feel like it?' "

To make sure members better understand, Truliant has embarked on an initiative in which members at every touch-point are reminded of the benefits of membership. Should a member compliment a front-line employee on a rate being offered for instance, that employee is being trained to do more than say thank you, and to explain to the member that it is the credit union's structure as a cooperative that makes that rate possible.

To bring CU uniqueness "to life," Reynard said TFCU put itself under the microscope.

"Consumers will pick their providers not on operational characteristics, which are converging around similar standards of performance, but on intangible, emotional or personalized interactions," he said. "At the end of the day we offer service. Our product is our service."

To that end, he said the credit union is advocating a service-experience brand model.

"Every employee action affects member experience," he suggested. "Make sure the credit union's values and ambitions are experienced by members and that there is a firm identity and distinctiveness. Relationship factors are more important when deciding where to give more wallet share," said Reynard. "Consumers value being treated as a valued member."

Reynard further cautioned that many of the decisions credit unions are making-selling card portfolios, adding ATM surcharges, instituting fees, aren't problematic in and of themselves. "By themselves they may not be much, but with the accumulation effect, you begin to look like a bank."

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