Why CUs Can't Afford To Treat Brand As 'Accessory'

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MILWAUKEE-A credit union's brand is much more than just an accessory that is bought and checked off a post-merger list.

That was the message from Ralph La Macchia, president of design/build firm La Macchia Group LLC, here. La Macchia said it is the job of a design/build firm to "see if goals are realistic. We don't guess if something works, we give specifics."

Some of the steps involved in a rebrand include an audit of the CU's brand to determine how it is viewed by the targeted audience, the existing audience, and the potential future audience.

Keith Walters, brand architect for La Macchia Group, added that in the case of a merger, the combination of cultures from two CUs involves a paradigm shift.

"Acquired employees must perform like the acquiring credit union wants them to," he said. "How the merging credit unions meld the two cultures determines how many employees they are able to successfully retain, and ultimately, the retention of members."

Jean Chandler, the firm's manager of branded environment, said CU staff has to believe in brand before perception takes place in the community. "The employees are a conduit," she said.

La Macchia agreed. "The brand is communicated consistently. Cash is what the credit union is delivering; the employees are one channel for that delivery. The employee is not the only way to deliver a brand, but an employee alone can destroy the brand. People want to feel like they are part of something good, and that is communicated by the employee."

After La Macchia Group completes the branch building process, Chandler said it encourages clients to appoint a "brand manager." It might not require hiring a new person, as long as someone in management takes ownership of the concept.

"Anything that creates the experience for the member creates the brand," she said. "Good brands are managed by choice, not by default. Some of the challenges our clients face is they are not ready for what rebranding means. They understand they need to make a big change and turn things around, but it takes a lot of work to keep a brand, which is a living, breathing entity, alive. Clients are surprised by the amount of work."

Members must be "invited into the brand" by the atmosphere in the branch Chandler continued. She said elements such as carefully selected pieces of furniture and art on the walls "creates an environment and experience so that the members take it home with them."

Palpable Difference

La Macchia noted there is a palpable difference between a branch that features a teller line with wrought-iron bars and one that has a concierge desk that takes people where they need to go.

In a merger early communication is important, Walters advised, "Because otherwise the rumor mill runs wild. Members wonder what is going to change."

"Mergers and acquisitions are usually mutually beneficial to both parties, and that is a good story to tell to the members," he said. "Tell them 'Here's why we are doing it, here's how everyone involved will benefit.' There is a great opportunity to get free press in the local media."

Another important element, added La Macchia, is letting members know the charities and other community events the credit union is involved with will continue.

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