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Why Perception of a National CU Brand May Be Upside-Down

I'm beginning to think all this talk of a national brand campaign for credit unions has it backward. If it happens, it isn't going to come from the top-down, it's going to come from the bottom up. And a lot of folks won't be happy.

Stay with me for a moment. With all the attention the financial downturn has brought to financial institutions, some credit unions have wondered aloud over why there is no CU-version of "Got Milk?" Or "the Other White Meat." Or "I'm a Mac...And I'm a PC."

In other words, a big, national, say-it-loud-say-it-proud brand campaign around which credit unions could be rallying right now.

As was noted in this space June 29, this issue got some attention recently during CUNA's America's Credit Union Conference when an audience member asked CUNA CEO Dan Mica why no such campaign is in place. Setting aside about a million other complicating issues, Mica cut to the chase when he essentially said, "No Money, No Campaign-ey." Such a national advertising effort would cost an estimated $40 to $50 million annually, he said.

A Pay Per View Opportunity

(Personally, I think CUNA should consider raising revenue with an online, pay-per-view webcast of some hapless intern calling CEOs who are still dealing with paying for the corporate assessment, loan loss transfers, and assorted writedowns, and telling them they need to pony up at least 10 grand each for an ad campaign. I'd pay to see it. And I'm sure that intern would look back and laugh someday. A far, far off someday.)

So, if you want something more than CUNA's "Credit Unions: Where People Are Worth More Than Money," you better pull up a chair and get comfortable. It isn't coming.

One of the new buzz-terms in this economy is "green shoots," a metaphor for the first signs of growth to emerge from the scorched economic soil. When it comes to nationwide branding efforts by credit unions, we may be seeing similar green shoots, just not in the fields in which most CUs have been looking.

The New National CUs

As Credit Union Journal has reported, in recent weeks and months we've seen some credit unions reaching across state lines-way across state lines-to acquire other CUs. Alaska USA FCU has expanded into California by taking over the troubled High Desert FCU in Apple Valley (giving us the first-ever Alaska/desert combination); it already operates in Washington State. Peoria, Ill.-based CEFCU also leaped some 2,100 miles into California by acquiring another wounded CU, Valley Credit Union in San Jose. Chicago-based Alliant CU, which has as its core membership employees of United Airlines, has flown into Nebraska (acquiring Southeastern Nebraska FCU and its 5,000 members) and California, acquiring the troubled Kaiperm FCU in Oakland. Also heeding the advice to Go West, Young Credit Unions was North Carolina's Self-Help FCU, which has taken over the $43-million Community Trust CU in Modesto.

It may not yet be green shoots, but we may be witnessing the seeds of the first national credit union brands - not a national brand sponsored by CUs, but individual national brands. With the exception of Self-Help, all of these CUs are multi-billion-dollar operations and they are only going to get larger. The failed credit unions above will hardly be the last; every week it seems a new tombstone is being carved for yet another small or midsize CU, its estate P&A'd by a much larger credit union.

While for some CUs marketing remains a flyer posted in a sponsor group's workplace, others are on the verge of building a national presence. We're not there yet, and if you think the idea is far off on the horizon, it wasn't long ago this newspaper was running front-page stories on CUs going "community." For some, that community has become from sea to shining sea ("Sea-U to Shining Sea-U," anyone?).

When those days finally arrive, the U.S. credit union community will have a whole other issue to debate in these pages and at its trade shows when it comes to a national branding campaign: many of the big guys who will be needed to pay for it will see no reason to do so, because they will already be running their own individual campaigns.

Will these national CUs feel compelled to talk about the "credit union" portion of their names? Or will they try to hide it, as some do, (which is a mistake, in my opinion)? Will they look to explain the premise, or be content with taglines such as "A different kind of bank."

And, 'Cut'

Still, before any credit union or its marketing director becomes too enchanted with the idea of hiring big-name actors, "doing lunch," using the word "babe" an inordinate number of times, and negotiating with national networks, keep in mind all the TV spots we used to see from Citibank and Lehman Bros. and WaMu. Don't forget that while millions were spent so you'd recall "It's Not Your Father's Oldsmobile," today it's not anyone's Oldsmobile.

In this issue there is a feature on branch managers, and one shares her experiences in working at a bank where decisions were made at a headquarters far away. It became a turn-off and a competitive weakness, for her and her bank. Will some CUs be next?

We are certainly on the verge of individual CUs becoming national brands. But a national message is no guarantee of success; for CUs success begins where it always has, across from a teller, interacting with a call center rep or even online. But I would look for some to forget that; as budgets get bigger, the little things just seem that much smaller.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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