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CU Marketing Unmasked: Are You Pretty Or Effective?

What is the face of credit unions? Most likely, you're inside the credit union community and you have an "inside" answer-the trade groups or delegations hiking their respective Hills or that glossy photo of the board of directors you've framed in every branch.

Time to step outside. Now what's the face of credit unions? To 99% of members, it's your marketing efforts: direct mail pieces, billboards, radio and TV spots, your website. To most of your members (and not the ones you see over and over in the branch), those media ARE the credit union. The irony is that for senior management it's easy to lose sight of that which is most often seen. Ask yourself: how do you most often see the credit union-through the marketing pieces you create, or through spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations?

Provoking this question is several days I spent last week in Madison, Wis. (yes, on purpose). I had the pleasure of being one of nine judges in the Credit Union Executives Society's (CUES) Golden Mirror Awards marketing competition, which this year fielded more than 800 entries across multiple categories.

With a gun to our heads (actually it was just a plate of fried Wisconsin cheese curds), the judges are sworn to secrecy about the winners-but there were trends and other observations about the state of credit union marketing in 2006-07 that are worth sharing:

First, perhaps most striking, was that credit unions are spending money, in some cases big bucks, to capture new members and relationships. Forget the days of boasting that it just "costs" $5 or $25 to join the credit union and forget a clever come-on. Many CUs are just cutting to the chase and dangling $25, $50 and even $100 rewards to get non-members to drop the "non."

In another sign membership growth is flat, a little digging showed the amounts some credit unions are spending to acquire new business is well into the mid-three figures. For campaigns that had big budgets but small results, the acquisition costs were staggeringly high, and it was hard to see how the CU could ever recover this expense.

The other area where credit unions could be seen actively looking to "buy" business was online bill pay. Not long ago that debate was over what to charge for this service. Now many CUs are offering cash and sweepstakes to get sign-ups for what is considered the ultimate "sticky" relationship.

Speaking of sticky situations, if CUES were to create a new Golden Mirror category I would recommend "Marketer Least Likely To Be Named CFO." It might be the most competitive category (and it's not just this competition, it's all the others, too). One of my fellow judges correctly noted that there are so many variables and qualitative measures in play, including some marketing directors who don't have the tools available to capture all costs and revenue, it can be tough to determine ROI on marketing efforts.

But CUES also makes it pretty clear what the formula should be for arriving at ROI so the judges can compare apples to apples; not that that seems to help many a marketing director. This isn't a new phenomenon: 15 years ago when I first judged a marketing competition, there was some headshaking over "marketer math." This year was no different: some reported astronomical ROIs of 32,000% or more when they needed to move the decimal point several places to the left; others drastically shortchanged the return they delivered, which brings me to the next point...

Does "ugly" work best? Fellow judge Brent Lawrence of Mountain America Credit Union posed this question after accurately observing that some of the ugliest and plainest campaigns pulled the best results, in some cases delivering legitimate 30,000%-plus results. Long the subject of debate among advertisers in other industries, an issue is arising within credit unions now that many more can afford ad agencies: is marketing work being created to win walletshare or beauty contests?

I have to confess to one disappointment in judging this year's CUES' GMAs. In years past there were always one or two campaigns so god-awful bad you were amazed some credit union created them and flabbergasted they were proud enough to enter their crud in a contest. This year's entrants were all contest-worthy. Overall, it was readily apparent the days when marketing was a "slash" job, as in HR/marketer or worse, CEO/marketer, are just about over.

The only category where some could improve: billboards. Policy at some CUs seems to be to allow each board member input into a billboard that has, at best, five seconds to grab the prospect. Another common failing in all marketing: not telling the member/prospect what's in it for them-it's all they want to know.

All of the judges were struck by how in many categories the most creative work came from the smallest CUs, especially in newsletters-and it wasn't amateurish. Perhaps it's because they have little choice to cut through the clutter, or they're hiring some younger, innovative (and cheaper) marketers.

Winners of the Golden Mirrors will be unveiled at CUES' Nexus Conference April 24-26, at The Fairmont in Dallas. (Don't give CUES grief if you didn't win; the judges spent a lot of time on the entries, especially focusing on results.)

For more info, visit www.cues.org.

It is said to be a gift to see ourselves as others see us. Now, ask yourself two questions: "What does our face look like?" and "Are we pretty-or effective?"

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

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