Why Rebranding And Ditching 'Credit Union' Is Bad Idea

It's sad how often saying something that is ignorant, or at best, provocative, is passed off as actually saying something meaningful or insightful. We are all subjected to statements that even a half-moment's thought would reveal they are specious. We hear "observations" that make one wonder if any observing occurred at all.

You don't need to look far in credit unions for an example, beginning with the words "credit union." This may be the mother of all merry-go-round topics in the CU community. If you missed it the first eleventeen-dozen times and even if the ride stopped and added all new riders, don't worry; that horse will come around again. And again.

Recently, I've (again) received a number of e-mails, seen some Tweets and read a few other views on whether credit unions should drop "Credit Union" from their names. Let me see if I can come up with a few words in response. Absurd. Advantage-surrendering. Counterproductive. Suicide. Need I go on?


Around And Around We Go

It is by no means the first to do so, but giving the latest spin to the merry-go-round on this issue is Tampa-based GTE FCU's decision to rebrand itself as GTE Financial.

Look, I may have to someday get on that merry-go-round and eat crow until I'm as sick as a couple of kids who just polished off cotton candy and a gallon of soda, as GTE Financial may post some robust growth numbers in the years ahead. But the name sounds to me like the indirect financing arm of a defunct phone company (GTE merged with Bell Atlantic in 2000 to form Verizon).

GTE Financial noted that "multiple white papers" have shown that "CU or FCU sometimes seem cold" to people. Hmm, as if consumers think "warm and welcoming" when thinking "bank" or "finance company." Sounds like there was more insight to be found on the backside of those papers.

Although it wasn't what they intended, I agree when it said that focusing on "Financial" rather than "Credit Union" helps to level the playing field. That's true; it surrenders the image and perception high ground any CU already holds and instead takes it straight downhill to the low ground where other providers are perceived.


Baffled & Wondering

Too often we are hearing from consultants and pundits who believe they are being innovative and even cutting edge in proposing credit unions give a quick CU Later to "Credit Union." And too often I find myself baffled and wondering if some of these decisions aren't being made by people wearing blinders inside a tunnel, oblivious to the mountains of contrary evidence all around them. Somebody raise the shades and have the board members look out the window!

I'm not sure I've used this space over the years to say anything more than this: the "credit union" name and concept are not only not obsolete or dated, they are fresh and alive and valued by a huge number of people, and the business model really resonates with those Gen X and Gen Y target markets credit unions are always worried over not capturing. If anything, it's "bank" and "financial" that seem crusty and antiquated, not to mention anti-consumer. Remember Bank Transfer Day wasn't (and isn't) about people transfering to banks.

"But no one knows what a credit union is!" I hear many of you saying. "Have you ever told people?" I respond. "And do you have some sort of data allergy?"

I've belonged to a number of CUs in my life and at none of them did anyone in the member sign-up process ever stop and ask if I knew what a credit union was or offer to explain it. There are some that do an excellent job of offering a primer in Credit Union 101 on their websites, but for most it's as if they just don't have time to explain and emphasize their biggest market advantage.

This year is the International Year of the Cooperative. Too bad we didn't see a concerted effort among credit unions in the U.S., large and small, and their trade associations to CU here, CU there, CU everywhere. Why not get every credit union stressing the same message? It would be a freebie with ROI.

And as for this ridiculous argument that "credit union" stymies growth, have some of these people even glanced at the numbers? Credit unions added 640,000 members in the second quarter, and 1.3 million in the first half of the year. Nearly 100 million Americans now belong, so you can see how those two words are really becoming a roadblock.


Time To Look Around

If you're still buying the superficial arguments being made by some that the "membership" brand has declined in appraised value, then you better look around the neighborhood. Competing providers are investing big dollars to stress the very same message some in CUs want to run from. Nationwide Insurance is running TV spots in which it talks about "becoming a nation of members" and of "putting people before profits, because we don't have shareholders."

And American Express is back with new ads of its own that use the tagline, "That's the membership effect," emphasizing it provides exclusive benefits because "we don't have customers, we have members."

Whomever it was who first observed "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," certainly didn't do so until a lesson was learned, a regret was had. Credit unions would be wise to learn from that person's foresight, before it becomes painful hindsight.


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