BOSTON—The Credit Union National Association today announced plans to raise $100 million over the course of three years to promote and sustain a national branding initiative for CUs, and two words are decidedly absent from the early promotional materials: “member” and “join.”

The "Open Your Eyes" campaign is the result of extensive research by CUNA and a variety of partners from across the industry. While it was first unveiled during the trade group's 2018 Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington earlier this year, CUNA President and CEO Jim Nussle kicked it off with remarks during America's Credit Union Conference here today.

CUNA President and CEO Jim Nussle, speaking during America's Credit Union Conference 2018 in Boston.
CUNA President and CEO Jim Nussle, speaking during America's Credit Union Conference 2018 in Boston. Photo courtesy of CUNA

In a one-on-one interview with Credit Union Journal, Nussle explained that CUNA’s research has shown that while consumers who already use credit unions associate the word “member” with value, that’s not the case for those who haven't yet joined -- they think of gym memberships, satellite TV memberships or other things that cost them money.

“What we’ve learned is that credit union communication needs to recognize how it’s being received, not just ‘We’ve always said it that way, so people must understand it.’ You have to explain the value of membership, not just say the word.”

So the campaign keeps the focus on the benefits credit unions provide to consumers while leaving out potential hurdles such as the concept of membership or joining, out of a belief that if the campaign can get consumers in the door, the individual credit unions themselves are more than equipped to close the deal.

A national branding campaign has long been the movement’s proverbial “white whale,” though some leagues – particularly Michigan and its CU Link initiative – have seen success with statewide branding campaigns. On top of that, individual credit unions do their own outreach as well. The idea, explained Nussle, is that CUNA’s efforts can complement the work already being done by state leagues and CUs.

As CUNA seeks to raise $100 million to support the initiative, Nussle said the focus right now is on building something “that’s sustainable, equitable and as transparent as possible so that all [natural-person] credit unions can participate.” The bulk of the funding is expected to come from credit unions, though Nussle said industry stakeholders such as PSCU, CO-OP Financial Services and CUNA Mutual Group – many of which have been involved in the research process for the campaign – have also expressed interest in supporting it.

“They may not be early adopters, but I believe there is some support to be a fast follower,” he said.

Nussle emphasized that credit unions are not required to fund to the campaign and funding levels are tiered in a way that places more of the weight on larger credit unions, though funding levels aren’t tied to metrics such as asset or membership size, or how much a credit union receives back from the Corporate Stabilization Fund – something Nussle said some have suggested.

“It’s not a demand, it’s not an investment – there’s not necessarily something we can say you’re buying into,” he said. “At this point in time it’s a contribution.” He compared it to ongoing contributions many people make to local charities or public radio outlets, donations which are made with the expectation that they will continue to provide funding beyond just a one-time commitment. He also emphasized that funding will be staggered over three years, so the industry won't be asked to pony up $100 million all at once.

“We want people to consider [contributing]. We understand there will be some –and there have already been a few – who have said we can contribute more than that, and then there are some who say that might be tough this first year."

Much of the messaging in the campaign itself is old hat to those in the movement or existing members, but in remarks during the conference general session, Nussle said "we tested it, and it was off the charts with those who weren’t going into a credit union or had maybe heard of one and weren’t going in.”

Nussle in his remarks called this an opportunity to take on the big banks and make it stick.

“It’s time to go big,” he said. “We’ve got to create our own future – we’re not going to get another opportunity.”

And the end goal, he added, is to ensure the movement is vibrant for generations to come. He said he gets asked regularly if credit unions are going to be relevant in five, 10 or 20 years. His answer?

“Hell yes, we are”