MILWAUKEE, Wis.-The record number of mergers among credit unions in recent years has created two camps of thought when it comes to rebranding: ease members of the acquired CU into the new brand, or move quickly and let members adjust.

Experts and analysts contacted for this Credit Union Journal special report said that in general, large CUs tend to wipe the slate clean and rebrand practically overnight, while smaller credit unions follow a more gradual path-if for no other reason than not wanting to waste thousands of dollars worth of forms, envelopes and other legacy paper products.

Exceptions apply, experts reminded, including the need for greater sensitivity in the case of a newly acquired branch in a small town or other close-knit area.

"There is going to be a relationship between the members and the employees in a rural environment, and that must be respected," explained Ralph La Macchia, president of design/build firm La Macchia Group LLC, based here. "That might suggest a slower transition. If it is too much, too fast, it might make people uncomfortable."

Much To Consider

Regardless of the speed of implementation, rebranding newly acquired branches forces credit unions to jump through multiple hoops. Paul Lucas, a marketing and branding consultant for credit unions and CUSOs based in Fairfax, Va., said it is easy to think of replacing interior and exterior logos due to their visibility, but many hidden links to the former CU lie in wait.

"Going through a rebranding involves so much," he said. "Signage has to be updated, plus envelopes and forms and this and that-even the logos on home banking pages. And it all adds up to a lot of money. That is why some credit unions pick a date a few months out, or even longer. Right now [early August] I'm working with a credit union in Canada that is doing a name change with a planned date of Jan. 1."

Even after all the remnants of the former credit union are identified there is another element to consider before making changes, reminded James Caliendo, president and COO of Pittsburgh-based design/build firm PWCampbell. He said the "look" of the new branches should match a CU's existing centers, but not at the expense of clashing with the new branch's surroundings.

"I was a banker for 28 years and I had retail under my jurisdiction," Caliendo said. "In mergers and acquisitions, if an organization has a strong brand and acquires another organization the first thought is, 'we want all of our offices to look the same.' This is done with colors, logos, wall coverings and marketing pieces. But someone has to get inside to see these. For the exterior, the existing building might fit the neighborhood and changing it to look like your other buildings might not work. Towers or awnings that might be put on the exterior to project the brand might clash with what is there."

Opportunity To Express Brand

For credit unions that do not have a brand and do an acquisition, Caliendo said there is a new opportunity. The key questions to ask, he counseled, are, what is the organization's culture, and, what does it say?

"Once those things are determined, design the logo, the look and the color the way the credit union wants to express itself," he said. "The draperies, the signage, all go into developing the look."

Caliendo cited Pictatinny FCU, Dover, N.J., as an example of a credit union for which PWCampbell created a memorable and identifiable image. Picatinny had an orange circle as a well-known part of its logo. The firm adapted the orange circle, designed a physical sphere and placed it in the tower of the CU's new building.

"The advantage there is consistency: take a common element the credit union is known for and put it in the building in a consistent way," he said. "It is not enough to just change the signage. There is a whole developing of a culture of a feel for all of those branches."

Although all of the analysts contacted for this story agreed a credit union's brand is much more than simply the building in which the branch is housed, La Macchia said the structure is a crucial part of branding it because it serves as a "billboard."

The building, he continued, gives a feeling for the message the credit union is trying to convey with the architecture and the look.

Focus On The Touchpoint At Hand

"That is a 200-foot touchpoint," he said. "Once someone walks into the lobby, that is the 35-foot touchpoint. Do I feel welcome? Or do employees look the other way, hoping I don't ask them a question? Then the member is face-to-face with an employee-the two-foot touchpoint. Do I feel good? Or am I hoping I never have to go into this branch again?"

The facility must support all of these different activities, La Macchia asserted. He said it has to give employees the opportunity to engage members and prospective members in a manner management wants them to achieve.

Triggers Yes, Clutter No

"Triggers" are important to in-branch sales, La Macchia offered. "If it is April and the credit union wants to sell an IRA, management should make sure employees see the signage as well as the members to remind them they need to sell an IRA."

But Lucas cautioned that too many marketing messages can diminish the quality of the branch atmosphere. He said a rebranding is a time to remove "clutter" and clean up the branch so the new brand can be featured.

"A lot of credit unions have tons of flyers, posters and pamphlets in their lobbies," he said. "Minimize these to make sure the brand is clean. Have just a couple of retail messages. Less is best-the cleaner your branches, the stronger the retail brand is."

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