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Weren’t These Guys Supposed To Be Without A Paddle About Now?

Despite the omnipresence of webcams, one eternal question remains unanswered: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make noise? We may never know. What we do know, however, is that if a credit union name tied to the forest falls, it can make a great deal of noise. Just ask the former Weyerhaeuser Employees Credit Union in Longview, Wash.

A year ago at this time WECU members had filled local airwaves and newspapers with angry opinions and letters about WECU’s planned name change and of how they would be closing their accounts. More than 130 letters appeared online (not sure if how many saw the irony of not using paper) making statements such as “the name stinks,” and “Red Canoe sounds great! The Dueling Banjo music will be great in the lobby!,” and, from one person who got to the tap root of the issue, “I am left without the ability to get on the same page or same planet as those who renamed this historic Longview institution.”

Why, the Columbia River itself was certain to run West to East and the salmon would swim only downstream, and all because WECU said that effective Jan. 1, 2007, it would be called Red Canoe Credit Union. Admittedly, it was a stark departure for a credit union that went back 70 years with a sponsor company and an industry that had made Southwestern Washington and Northwestern Oregon one big company town, all based on logging and forest products. Weyerhaeuser’s green tree logo was omnipresent and now, the way locals saw it, their credit union was clear-cutting that heritage and even turning red in the process (even though Weyerhaeuser Corp. had asked the CU to make the name change).

Today, Red Canoe’s experience with a name change is testimony to several things: even people in places called Longview seldom take the long view; folks don’t often put their money where their mouths are, and a name, however radical, can grow on you like moss on a Sitka Spruce.

“It started out a little bit rocky, but it’s been great,” said VP-Marketing Amy Davis. “There was a lot of passion in our community. The strong response came right after we released the name in October of 2006. There was a lot of controversy then. By January, when we officially unveiled the name and the signage and we started the branding, it had died down. It was just very different and raw and it didn’t tell the story. But we’ve had a string of successful community events (during 2007) and we’ve had record growth. There’s been no mention of it.”

The red canoe (both the name and the logo were designed by Seattle-based Weber Marketing Group) is meant to conjure up images of the outdoors, especially the rivers and streams that are a powerful presence in the Northwest, even among those who get no closer to canoeing than a Wii game console.

“We were able to do a lot of our story branding in our radio spots, and that helped a lot,” said Davis. “The ads didn’t address that we had been asked to change the name. Instead, we just explained what we were. It’s a different name for a different brand of financial institution. The newspaper advertising and billboards were very powerful in showing the Northwest imagery.”

Whether you like the new name or not, and I do, you can’t deny it is among the most readily identifiable brands around, not just in credit unions (many of which have opted for a plethora of forgettable, hybrid, Latin-sounding monikers in recent years), but in the retail marketplace, too. Davis said she is optimistic it will be able to use just the paddle itself in marketing due to its “iconic nature.” To judge whether you think the idea floats, go to redcanoeecu.com.

“It has worked out wonderfully,” said Davis. “We’re so happy with it. It has streamlined our look and our marketing. We use the paddle in all we do and we’ve been able to transfer a lot of the old equity into the new name. And the members have embraced the uniqueness. You will hear them say ‘I’m going down to the canoe’ instead of ‘I’m going down to the CU.’ We’ve had a lot of fun with it, too. We had a ‘Fill the Canoe’ drive for school supplies and people came to fill the canoe with pencils and paper. It’s very dynamic.”

Weyerhaeuser’s request back in 2005 that its CU change its name put in motion other changes. When it expanded via a merger across the river into Oregon it encountered a regulation that a credit union cannot be both SEG-based and community chartered, so it moved to the latter, including five Oregon counties.

“I can’t say how happy we are,” said Davis just a year after so many in the community were expressing their unhappiness. “It’s been an amazing transformation.”

When I remarked that Red Canoe consider opening a canoe-through at a branch and that it has not found itself up a creek without a paddle after all, Davis did not immediately recommend I consider a career in stand-up. “We hear all those jokes all the time,” she responded.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com. (c) 2007 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.cujournal.com http://www.sourcemedia.com

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