Amidst All The 'Transfers,' Much Has Been Learned

Three little letters. One extraordinary year.

If you attended any CU conference in 2010 and 2011, as sure as your nametag would always flip around backward, there was one issue you'd always hear being raised: why don't credit unions have a national ad campaign?

There were lots of reasons, cost being the biggest, and then, suddenly, the Big Co-op In The Sky opened and credit unions received a lot more than milk; they got the whole cow, if not a herd. And all of it thanks to a perfect storm of weather systems completely out of CUs' control: Bank of America announced a $5-per-month debit card fee; a young woman in California frustrated with those fees posted a message on Facebook that she thought only her friends would see in which she called for a national Bank Transfer Day; and she did so at the same time many people and groups were already angry over Wall Street and Big Banks.

It's been a year since the official Bank Transfer Day (BTD) of Nov. 5, 2011, and since it took on much more than just a life of its own. Over the 12 months ending in June, credit unions added 2.2 million new members, squeezing more people under the umbrella in one year than ever before.

In this issue Credit Union Journal looks at Bank Transfer Day One Year Later (see coverage beginning on page 14). What a year it has been. Looking back, here are some of the highlights, the observations, the creative campaigns and much more:


* No state has taken to BTD like South Carolina, where South Carolina FCU trademarked the phrase "Every Day is Bank Transfer Day," and then transferred the trademark to CUNA for all to use. Palmetto State CUs have collaborated on a joint campaign and the website BTDNow.org. As SCFCU's Troy Hall observed, "Our first thought was why should it just be a day; it should happen all the time."...Looking back at the past year, CUNA CEO Bill Cheney observed recently, "The momentum is building and growth is coming to credit unions. Consumers finally woke up to the fact credit unions are a better deal, and when they are walking in the door they like the experience and are telling their friends. It's about time."


* In East Windsor, N.J., McGraw-Hill FCU launched a "We Hear You" video contest in which people were urged to create 90-second videos about their personal experiences with CUs or large banks. As CEO Shawn Gilfedder said, "Bank Transfer Day was nice, but it was a call to action by one frustrated consumer. Why not allow many other frustrated consumers to tell their stories?"...Few CUs have seen the kind of new member growth reported by BECU in Seattle. In October of 2011, it saw 16,000 new members alone. But it also is stressing a quality message, regardless of the quantity of sign-ups. "We try to get them engaged in the credit union philosophy right from the start," said Kristin Anderson, who manages the downtown office. "We talk about the benefits of the cooperative business model, review our own unique operating model and then look to find ways to save them money."


* The news hasn't all been good. Jim Van Dyke, president of Javelin Research said many people who tried to open accounts online during the Bank Transfer Day period couldn't due so, because many CUs lag in key technology elements...And BTD hasn't been the sole driver of growth, according to research by SNL, which said "aggregate growth of deposits at banks and credit unions from year-end 2006 remained steady until about the beginning of 2009 before diverging. At that point, CUs opened a gap in deposit growth compared to banks."


* The $50-billion Navy FCU reported it has seen an astounding 305,000 new members so far in 2012. Many of the BTD gains reported also came from larger CUs, with smaller CUs reporting minor or no increases. That seems to have to do with visibility. People may not like their bank, but if they don't "see" an alternative, they don't transfer. Eric Bruen, CEO of the $21-million Desert Valleys FCU, said moderate member growth isn't all bad for small CUs, noting an influx could create bad capital positions for many small shops...Speaking of which, $47-million Star Choice CU saw such strong share growth diluting its net worth that it ceased paying dividends on MMAs over $100,000. Indeed, it urged members to move funds.


* A number of CUs found their marketing messages in the right place as Bank Transfer Day began to gain momentum. Several years ago, Patelco CU built its marketing around "breaking up with your bank," and then began using the theme "Bank on Trust." When BofA announced its debit fee, it rolled out "No Fee In Free," and staff wore buttons that read, "People, not Profit." Speaking of marketing, Bank Transfer Day put a new premium on switch kits. If you're looking for ideas, search those keywords at CUJournal.com...In Winston-Salem, N.C. Members CU rolled out a "Break Up With Your Bank" campaign of its own...In St. Paul, Minn., Affinity Plus FCU already had in place a "Ditch Your Bank" campaign.


* Credit Union 24's fourth annual Credit Union Industry Survey found a new concern ranked number-one in 2012: instead of "attracting new members," CU execs were most worried that "consumers don't understand credit union benefits over banks. There is still a large number of people who don't have a full appreciation of what credit unions can do for them," said CEO Jim Park.


* Bank Transfer Day resonated so strongly with people because it was about more than their finances, said Hope Schau, an expert in consumer behavior and associate professor of marketing at the University of Arizona. "Right now, in this perceptual space, consumers are really looking at those attributes credit unions have-being locally focused, being consumer driven-and they're seeing that as a welcome change from the traditional financial services business model."


* It would have occurred anyway, but BTD pushed the milestone forward: during 2012 credit unions in the U.S. surpassed $1 trillion in assets. But behind the data is a struggle: CUs greater than $5 billion increased their assets at a pace of 14% in 2011. Those between $500 million and $5 billion saw an increase of 6.1%. Those with less than $500 million in assets increased by 0.5%.


* Apathy is often cited as the reason most people stick with big banks. But Kinecta FCU in Manhattan Beach, Calif. reported one member personally brought in six new members by driving them to the branch to sign up. Moreover, this same person also handed out leaflets in front of a Bank of America branch on Bank Transfer Day that urged customers to make the switch.


* BTD was a Facebook creation, so you would think it would be younger consumers most likely to list it among their "likes." Instead, it was consumers over age 60 who were "very" or "somewhat" familiar with it (44%). Just 22.7% of those under age 30 expressed similar awareness, according to research by TNS, a research unit of WPP...Similarly interesting, even though BTD got its start via a Facebook post, most of the related social media traffic appears to have been generated through Twitter, according to NM Incite.


* Meanwhile, American Banker, an affiliate of Credit Union Journal, reported that all that anti-big-bank negativity hasn't slowed their growth. Data on dollar amounts of deposits show growth at big banks outstripping growth at small banks during Q3 and Q4.


* When CUNA adjusted downward the number of new members who joined CUs during September and October of 2011, bank trade publications included headlines such as "Credit Unions Eat Crow On Customer Numbers" and "Banks Revel in Credit Union Gaffe." During those two months it's estimated 441,000 new members signed up. Here's hoping credit unions have another year of dining on some more crow.

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