To paraphrase, they say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
And so it was last week that credit unions found themselves in the Business section of The New York Times in a piece that generally painted CUs as stodgy, old-fashioned, and well, boring. In this case, it was a compliment.
The coverage, headlined "Some Credit Unions Try Something New-Promoting Themselves," was like something pulled straight out of these pages over the past year, and echoed some of the calls heard in conference hallways and even by a few speakers calling on credit unions to put the "boring" behind them.
The paradox is that "boring" has generally worked for CUs, albeit in a slow, steadfast way over the past century. Sometimes (i.e. these times), boring is even sexy. Consumers have had quite enough of the excitement of big banks, thank you very much-the excitement of knowing you're bailing them out, the excitement of reading about the CEO's multi-comma bonus check, the excitement of driving slightly out of the way just to make sure your bank is still open and operating.
As the Times reported, "Credit unions have a reputation for being rather dull and conservative...," which is why a spate of new advertising is so fresh, so provocative, so good to see and so effective. The newspaper pointed to a series of TV ads from credit unions across the country that it called "cheeky," although the report said (with some accuracy) that most CUs continue to stick to "...time-worn routines: gentle membership drives, bland advertising and contentment with the business they have."
CUNA's Bill Hampel was quoted pointing to two obstacles for credit unions: the words "credit" and "union" and all the misunderstanding they generate, and if you ever want to light up a CU blog or listserv, just pose the question of what term or word might work better (whatever happened to those marketers and senior execs who considered themselves so cutting edge in recent years by referring to the CU as a "bank", anyway? I can only assume they're brainstorming right now something with "BP" in it.) The Times also addressed that other issue, which was highlighted in this very same space on June 7, which is that "most Americans are eligible to join a credit union, but many do not know that they are."
But the real gist of the report was those "cheeky" ads. It cited a series from Alabama's America's First CU (CU Journal, May 22) in which bankers come clean about their sins, although they don't seek forgiveness. As one woman says in the ads, "I'm kind of a hero down at the bank right now. We're under all this pressure from our stockholders, so my idea was to jack up fees and cut back services. Did it work? Well, let's just say I'm having my lunch in the executive dining room now."
Also mentioned were an ad from BECU in Washington State that urges consumers to "Switch Now or Pay Later," an ad from SCE FCU in Califronia with the tagline "I wish banking were less bankish," and a video from Public Service CU in Michigan that was made for $1,000 and shows a fat cat banker taking a bath in dollar bills. You can find it on YouTube here. By the way, that's a Public Service CU employee in the tub, and I'll assume he was not consulted for the YouTube video caption, which reads, "An unattractive, out-of-shape, overweight banker strips down to bathe himself in your money."
The NY Times report did not mention two other very recent, very creative TV campaigns being run by Trumark Financial Credit Union in Pennsylvania (CU Journal, May 31) and the new Michigan campaign (CU Journal, June 14). Both represent some of the best advertising ever created by credit unions.
The Trumark spots set up the viewer's expectations, and then spring a surprise that drives home the message-but not all the way. The ads avoid using the words "credit union." I can understand the arguments that were likely made in doing so (see much of the above), but if ever there was a time when two words are a fresh, in-your-face, we're-not-like-the-other-guys antidote to "banking," now is that time.
The Michigan ads also offer a succinct twist on a message credit unions have expressed a hundred-different ways over the past hundred years. "Own Your Money," the ads extol.
For a national CU movement that talks dreamily of a national brand campaign, it sounds like it's found one.
Frank J. Diekmann is publisher of Credit Union Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.