On Branding: Growth 101: Protect Your Core Members, Keep One Foot In Present & One In Future

On Sept. 10, in the Credit Union Journal's daily news, there was a short article titled "Ensweiler Calls for National Cooperation to Build CU Membership." Dick Ensweiler is absolutely right. In fact this past spring I was contracted by CUNA to write the opening portion of a white paper on the merits of a credit union national branding effort. If you have an opportunity to read the white paper you will see that I believe in a national credit union brand. But it will only bring value to the industry if individual credit unions understand how to build on the CUNA national branding effort with their own local marketing and advertising.

National Brand Won't Be Achieved Without A Clear Message

Personally I've always maintained that our CU industry will not achieve creation of a national brand unless it is embraced by credit unions nationwide and it becomes part of our culture. Building a national brand requires development of a clear, direct message that gives financial decision makers a compelling reason to consider using a credit union, even if they do not understand how credit unions differ from banks.

Most past and current state CU brand campaigns are too soft and they don't give their target audiences a reason to consider using a credit union, or to consider using their credit union as a primary services provider. Consumers today are bombarded with messages at a constantly accelerating rate. The Internet is a great resource but now shoppers suffer from information overload. "Cute" or "clever" messages will be left behind.

Shared branching is critical to the success of national branding for credit unions. It eliminates the biggest perceived advantage banks have over credit unions-more convenient locations. Spending four years as a consultant for a regional EFT CUSO (ENCORE) taught me the value of strength in numbers. It amazes me that CUs don't take more advantage of the CO-OP Financial Services business model. It allows a local credit union to compete as a national brand.

A recent article on CreditUnions.Com by Stan Holland, CEO of CO-OP Financial Services titled, "The Next Generation Of Shared Branching" reveals that in 2006 69% of credit unions had only one branch. Those single-branch credit unions need a shared branch network to compete in today's financial services marketplace.

Establish Benchmarks First

Before launching an intense branding effort it is critical to understand the attitudes and needs of current members and prospective members. A company like Neil Goldman's MemberResearch could serve as a vital partner. You need to establish a benchmark on the level of awareness of the credit union among your core target groups plus you need to measure the level of positive attributes they apply to your credit union. Subsequent tracking studies allow you to measure the effectiveness of your branding campaign and make adjustments as needed in the messages, media plans and target group profile to keep your campaign on track.

A national branding effort that clearly differentiates credit unions in the financial services industry and positions them as an attractive option versus banks is a great foundation. Local credit unions can then build on the brand by differentiating their local brand in that marketplace while still tying into the national branding message.

My experience in working with credit unions of all sizes in 32 states has taught me two basic lessons about credit union growth: always protect your core member base, and keep one foot in the present and one foot in the future with all your branding efforts. Too many CU's want to avoid change. Yet the need to change, grow, and meet emerging new needs and wants is a given. Adapt or die.

Paul J Lucas is a national marketing and branding consultant. For more information visit www.PaulJLucas.com or e-mail paul<at>pauljlucas.com.