Why It Should Be Women & Kids First At Credit Unions

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Women and children first is no longer simply a motto in times of emergency-it's a sign of the times for credit unions right now, according to one expert.

"Credit unions have two primary emerging markets, women and children," said NewGround President Kevin Blair, who kicked off The Credit Union Journal's 6th Annual SEG & Business Development Conference. "People want more than just good member service, they want an experience."

Blair's remarks, entitled "McDonald's Has a Playground Out Front For a Reason," discussed a variety of ways to reach out to women and children, but also noted the importance of creating a brand that everybody wants.

To illustrate this point, Blair showed a slide of two police officers carrying a statue of Ronald McDonald, which they were returning after it had been stolen. "Ronald McDonald is such a strong brand that someone wanted to steal Ronald," he noted. "Imagine if someone wanted to steal your logo."

Developing that kind of brand awareness and buzz around a particular brand means creating an environment people want to be in, an experience people want to have and a culture people want to be a part, Blair said.

Brand Examples

Some examples of companies that have done just that and the key to their success include:

Starbucks. Key to success: marketing and business development drive every part of the brand. "Nothing inside a Starbucks shop goes in without thought for how it supports the brand," Blair observed. "Marketing and business development touches everything that goes into a Starbucks."

Harley Davidson. Key to success creating an entire culture of which people want to be a part.

Build-A-Bear. Key to success: personalization. At the end of the day, what comes out of these stores is "just a stuffed animal"-but by engaging the customer (who takes part in the creation of the toy) and offering a myriad of ways to customize the toy, the customer has gotten both the experience of creating the toy and the pleasure of knowing it a a one-of-a-kind.

Southwest Airlines. Key to success: pairing experience with price. Noting that the other examples on the list are all higher-end brands that charge more for things that can be purchased for far less elsewhere, Blair noted that Southwest is proof that these characteristics don't have to be centered around an expensive brand.

In the process of developing a brand and an experience, however, credit unions need to look to their future markets, not just the markets they've been good at targeting in the past. "The Boomers have been great drivers of our business, but their needs are changing. They're moving from borrowers to savers," Blair suggested. "You need to look further down the road than you think you need to."

A good start, he offered, is to recognize that even right now, women tend to control the checkbook, and in some cases, reluctantly so, because they don't feel like financial institutions are at all friendly.

"Financial services branches, products and services are mostly designed by men and for men," he commented. "Yet 80% of all financial decisions are either made by or strongly influenced by women, and 48% of small businesses are owned by women, so their power goes beyond the household and into small business loans and services, which is right up your alley."

In fact, Blair pointed out that women-owned businesses are growing 28% faster than those owned by men. "They're more creative, and we've got to reposition ourselves to cater to them," he added.

Buyers, Not Shoppers

"Our market is set up for the buyer, not for the shopper," Blair continued. "We need to create a shopping experience."

Of course, women tend to behave like men when they go to a credit union branch-get in and get out as quickly as possible. Why? Because they often have to bring their children with them, and that can be an excruciating experience-unless the credit union is prepared to cater to this reality.

"We have to create somewhere they want to hang out," Blair noted, adding that while most credit unions have programs for toddlers (whose parents and grandparents want to start a savings account for) and older teens (who are looking for that first auto loan), CUs tend to forget about the Tweens-pre-teens and younger teens who are too old for the toddler-based kids clubs and too young to be working toward a car loan or thinking about college loans, etc.

Broken Promise

And even when credit unions have created decent programs for kids of all ages on their websites, their physical branches rarely hold up to that brand promise. "You must provide the physical environment, too," Blair advised.

Why are tweens so important? Because they influence 30% of all household spending, he said. Take, for example, a friend of Blair's who recently bought a new car complete with a flip-down DVD screen for showing movies and other fun accessories. "They didn't buy that car for themselves, they bought it for driving their grandkids around," he said. "We tend to take care of our children or grandchildren before we take care of ourselves."

The typical play areas installed in some CU branches, however, simply don't pass muster, Blair said. It's going to take a whole lot more than a bead counting game to engage these kids.

"Think about it, you buy a toy for a kid, and within a week, it's old news," he noted. NewGround did a survey of mothers and children about what they think of credit unions and what they think credit unions should be like.

What did the kids ask for? Candy, free money and a playground. Designers are coming up with a variety of ways to answer that call.

Kids can get "free money" when they use a kiosk that allows them to design their own currency-featuring their own face in place of a dead president's, Blair related. Not only will they have fun creating the currency (which they can print out and take with them), but they will also learn about the history of money along the way.

Other Ideas

A credit union can also make use of the air chambers that blow money around and allow kids to try to grab as much real money as they can in 30 seconds-a feat that's harder than you think, he added.

Credit unions can offer kids Internet access while the parents are conducting business, including an area where they can download MP3 files, for example.

To help teach children about financial literacy, credit unions can employ a variety of programs out there, but Blair's favorite is one called Moonjar (www.moonjar.com), which teaches children the benefits of saving, sharing and spending.

It's also important to engage them in the process. Blair described a promotion where kids can get a free iPod Mini if the parents open up an education CD.

To push the program, the cute, colorful iPods will be on display in the branch, with signage telling kids they can get one if their parents open the special CD.

When asked to describe banks (none of them knew what a credit union was), one child said they are "old and mean." This poses an opportunity and a challenge. "Kids don't know what a credit union is, and that indicates we need to do more education," Blair offered, but the fact that banks were described as "old and mean" also means credit unions have a real opportunity to differentiate themselves from that image.

One of the keys to remember, when the CFO or the board demands to know what the ROI is on implementing some of these programs, is the cost of NOT doing it, Blair advised.

"You can use these programs as a way of getting in front of kids, schools, churches, and that puts you in the community," he said, "and also right in front of the parents, as well."

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