There is so much more that credit unions want to do to better serve consumers-and much that CUNA wants to do to help credit unions do that. Yet, the hard fact is that, sometimes, credit unions need to secure some changes in law or regulations just to create a more flexible operating environment in which to thrive.
That can be a tall order, particularly when the banking industry is breathing down our necks, as well as those of lawmakers and policymakers in the nation's capital clamoring to keep credit unions in a box.
So, when the CUNA Board last year asked Dan Mica and his staff to develop a credit union image program that would foster positive change for credit unions, Dan and his team came back to us with a clear message: Focus on Capitol Hill.
The idea is simple: let's change the conversation on the Hill. Let's build an understanding in Congress-which makes the most crucial decisions about what credit unions can and cannot do-that credit unions exist solely to serve the middle-income, working men and women of this country, who typically live paycheck to paycheck. We decided to "change the conversation" from institution vs. institution-to what is good for the recipients of credit union service, their members.
We also wanted to do that without stopping or changing anything else that we do at CUNA-such as our intensive lobbying activities or our top-notch political programs.
But how to make that happen, particularly with an audience that is already on information overload? Consider that Members of Congress and their staffs (all told, about 16,000 souls), typically each week digest four newspapers, five Washington-focused publications, three news magazines, eight hours of cable news, three hours of radio news, five news websites and 200 e-mails (excluding spam). Time-and attention span-is at a premium.
How do you break through that?
At CUNA, we decided to try a different approach to "break through." We adopted a new tool, a graphic, that could be instantly recognizable as the focus of and reason for credit union service-the member. We call him the Little Guy, and use him to make the point that credit unions "look out of for the little guy."
The "Little Guy" is more than a character. He's intended to be iconic-an easily remembered point of differentiation about who credit unions serve. And, to make him memorable, we planned to use him in a variety of different settings and in an assortment of ways.
On Jan. 4, swearing-in day of the new Congress, we introduced the Little Guy to Capitol Hill. The phenomenon of "information overload" is especially at work on that day, arguably the busiest day of the year for the 110th Congress. On the other hand, we also suspected (and later confirmed) that the banking industry was hard at work the same day, particularly at defining credit unions their own way.
It's also true that swearing-in day is a festive one on the Hill, and having the Little Guy at work for us allowed us to have some fun as well.
First, to introduce the Little Guy to as many people as possible, we developed and produced commemorative buttons of the 110th Congress. Similar to buttons produced for presidential inaugurals, the buttons were handed out at subway (Metro) stations to anyone who would take one, and among all congressional offices.
Second, to display the face of the Little Guy before even more people, we distributed four-foot-tall (lifesize?) cutouts of the Little Guy on both sides of the U.S. Capitol- and invited passersby to have their picture taken with him. Each person who posed with the Little Guy was photographed by one of our on-site photographers, who gave each subject a card with instructions about how to download their photograph from a special website: lookoutforthelittleguy.org.
Finally, we ran ads in Washington newspapers covering the Congress, Capitol Hill and politics generally. But these were not your run-of-the mill ads; these were political cartoons poking fun at banker complaints about credit unions -and they included both the Little Guy and the website. Yes -the Little Guy can have an edge, too!
Results: we handed out more than 16,000 buttons to members of Congress, their staff members and Capitol Hill visitors- not to mention nearly all 535 congressional offices-in just about three hours. We snapped more than 150 photographs-visitors, staffers and at least one member of Congress-posing with the Little Guy (and, when they retrieved their photos from the website, they viewed a quick rundown of the differences between credit unions and banks). And we received a host of calls from people on Capitol Hill telling us they saw the buttons, the cutouts and the newspaper ads (or heard a radio sponsorship we had also purchased)-and they got it. Credit unions "look out for the Little Guy."
We had "broken through."
There is more work to do, much of it at the GAC this week in Washington. "Look Out for the Little Guy" throughout the conference and in the coming weeks and months. Working with him, we hope to "change the conversation," and build a better operating environment for the nation's credit unions, to help them thrive in serving their members.
Allan Kemp McMorris is chairman of CUNA's Governmental Affairs Committee and CEO of Oakland County Credit Union, Waterford, Mich.