One CU's Either-Oar Decision: Uniqueness Vs. Me, Too

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There's a better-than-even chance your credit union has changed its name in recent years, and that you and the rest of the management team believe that for the most part the process was as smooth as peanut butter. Hardly a word of complaint from members, you boast. Nary a negative letter, your coworkers are quick to point out.

That's too bad.

Perhaps the reason members didn't complain was that members also didn't care. Neither did your community. You've been so happy to fill out board reports indicating that members weren't unenthusiastic about your new name and new brand that you forgot to notice they weren't exactly enthusiastic, either.

Say what you want about Weyerhauser Employees Credit Union's new moniker-and plenty of people have-but it certainly has gotten the attention of its hometown of Longview, Wash. Effective Jan. 1, WECU will become known as Red Canoe Credit Union, which just might be the most incomparable name and brand selected by a credit union in recent years, if not ever.

"I'm somewhere between a hero and a moron, depending on which blog entry you read," laughed Mark Weber, principal with Seattle-based Weber Marketing Group, which oversaw the name change process and which is leading the rebranding.

The local Daily News had more than 130 postings on its website within days of reporting the name change from readers who came down firmly as charter members of either the Love It or Hate It camps. "The name stinks," blogged one person. "I hope the credit union didn't pay this marketing business a bundle of money to choose this name. My husband is furious." Blogged another, "I am left without the ability to get on the same page or same planet as those who renamed this historic Longview institution."

"They wanted a name that was uniquely theirs and highly brandable, as they plan to expand," explained Weber, who has overseen more than 20 such CU name changes. "It is a name that is distinctive to the Pacific Northwest. Brands must tell stories, and this is a name that tells a story."

When they don't opt to create a new hybrid word for a name, most credit unions opt for what Weber dubbed "me, too" names, often with "First" or "Member" in them. "Most of those names are warm and fuzzy, but no one cares because there is no emotion," said Weber, who has read the blogs. "I know that many people are impassioned on both sides and in some ways that level of passion has been a surprise."

In selecting a new name, Weber says about eight people at his firm are involved. The process begins with identifying "pathways" for the credit union, including what is distinct about it and where it is going. It also considers the current membership and identifies potential names and themes for each of those paths. For instance, because Weyerhauser (which asked the CU to make the change) is a logging and wood products company, it mulled over choices that included "trees" and "pine" and "green" before opting for a path that better reflects the Southern Washington, Northern Oregon communities in which it operates. But even there it recognized it had competition.

Weber estimated that 60% to 70% of financial institutions in the market use Oregon or Washington or Cascades or Northwest in some form in their names. "A lot of them look and sound alike," he said.

"Red Canoe is a Northwest name," Weber said. "It reflects the flavor of the Northwest, the outdoors. We're surrounded by water-rivers and lakes and the ocean. The canoe has a strong connection, and red is a bold color." The name is meant to evoke the image of a red canoe atop a Jeep as its owner heads off for some time on the Columbia River (on whose banks Longview is located) or other waterway.

As the locals can attest, Red Canoe is the kind of name that gets an immediate reaction, but Weber urged others considering such a change to let prospective names percolate. "The question shouldn't be what do you think when you first see it," he offered. "Names are not made or broken the first time seen. If they were, no unique name would ever be chosen. Names that are most distinctive are not the names that people like the most."

At the kick-off ceremony where the name choice was introduced to employees, Weber estimated 75% "screamed and cheered and were in favor." In earlier research, he said employees had stressed they didn't want a name "like everyone else" and that the name should reflect the passion they feel for their employer and its place in the community.

As for those members threatening to leave Red Canoe and dock at another CU, Weber said the response isn't unusual, and that the folks in Longview need to take the long view. "We've heard many, many times after a name change from people saying 'I'm leaving.' But if you track it you find they do not. Name changes reveal deeper issues; people are responding to change and it's a shock. This is a logging community based on Weyerhaeuser. People feel an emotional loss. What they're really asking is 'Where is the credit union going and what else is going to change?' You have to recommit to your core message and be the best credit union you can be."

Otherwise, you're up a creek without a paddle.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann

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