In a historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide.
Voting 5-4, the justices said states lack any legitimate reason to deprive gay couples of the freedom to marry. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's four Democratic appointees in the majority, bringing gay weddings to the 14 states where they were still banned.
"The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person," Kennedy wrote. "Couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty."
In the wake of this historic ruling that caps the biggest civil rights transformation in a half-century, Credit Union Journal looks back to a story published earlier this year about how CUs can grow their businesses by pitching wedding-related products to same-sex couples.
Because in addition to making history, the high court has just opened a whole new market for credit unions to target.
Credit unions have long offered a variety of wedding-related products and services, with some institutions offering specific wedding loans, while others just refer to them as personal or signature loans.
Still others offer wedding registry services that allow friends and family to deposit cash into a dedicated wedding account for the newlyweds. (The Filene Research Institute piloted a similar program in 2012 known as "MatriMoney.")
Regardless of their gender makeup, many couples need as much financial help as they can get, since a recent study found the average cost of a wedding running as high as $30,000 — with one in eight couples spending $40,000 or more. (And none of those figures include the honeymoon!)
Meanwhile, Tiffany & Co. has also entered the fray, with ads for engagement rings featuring same-sex couples.
Credit unions in states across the nation that have already legalized same-sex marriage have plenty of advice and lessons for CUs eyeing this market share.
Newburg, Ind.-based Heritage FCU has offered a wedding registry service for about seven years and has seen "phenomenal" success with that product, according to Steve Bugg, chief marketing and member service officer at the $463 million credit union.
"We position it as an alternative to a physical gift," explained Bugg. "There's been a lot of couples that have told us they may already have two households set up or they feel like they have enough for their combined household that they don't necessarily need gifts. So they look at this as an option when talking to friends, family and loved ones."
Same-sex marriage was legalized in Indiana in October 2014, but Bugg said Heritage doesn't track what sorts of couples ask for the product and he hasn't heard of interest yet from gay couples.
Rather than targeting specific market segments, HFCU aims for individuals that need this sort of savings product. Not only has it helped the CU grow its membership, he added, but members who use the product tend to keep those funds in the credit union after the wedding, rather than withdrawing them and moving them to another institution.
Same Product, Regardless of Sexuality
Mid-Atlantic FCU in Germantown, Md., also offers a wedding loan product.
But instead of issuing the funds all at once, MAFCU makes the money — up to $20,000 — available as a line of credit that members can tap into as needed throughout the wedding-planning process.
VP of Marketing Marc Wilensky said the product is popular, and one that could easily translate to same-sex couples — though there hasn't yet been much interest from that audience. (Same-sex marriage was legalized in Maryland in January 2013.)
"I think same-sex couples probably have the same financial challenges as a more traditional bride and groom have, so I wouldn't see why [the product wouldn't work for those couples]," Wilensky told Credit Union Journal. "I know from talking to wedding planners in the area that they've seen an increase in business from same-sex couples, and I get the sense from talking to event planners that [LGBTQ couples] want to have the same elaborate wedding and the same financial challenges that they try to cover the expenses of as a traditional couple does."
Wilensky said that his institution has not specifically targeted that audience for this product, but might consider looking into advertising it in the local gay and lesbian newspaper.
On the opposite side of the country at SAFE CU in Sumter, Calif., VP of Marketing Paul Hersek said the $2.1 billion institution has not advertised its wedding loan to gay couples largely because it doesn't differentiate between sexual orientations for its product offerings.
"If you're married, you're married, it doesn't matter if you're same sex or heterosexual," he said. "That doesn't change our product offerings or how we're talking to our members. I don't know if it's an untapped resource in the sense of marketing; we approach all of our members and prospective members the same."
Because SAFE does not view its wedding loan as a different product for same-sex couples, it has not marketed the product differently.
MAFCU, SAFE and Heritage all rely on local bridal shows and wedding expos to promote their wedding offerings, and many said that vendors get just as excited about these products as the bride- and groom-to-be.
In Seattle one credit union representative said there are real benefits to marketing these products specifically to the LGBTQ audience.
Philip Endicott is president of Equality Washington, an equal-rights group working to open a credit union that serves the LGBTQ community.
"There are unique situations now that the community is coming out of the closet and into its own and beginning to become mainstream," explained Endicott. "We're finding ourselves in situations like marriages, adoption, [and] gender-reassignment surgery, where offering those unique and supportive loans makes a whole lot of sense."
LGBTQ consumers don't necessarily want to be assimilated, said Endicott, but they don't want to hide or be singled out, either. What's most important, he said, is to find ways to make those members comfortable and ensure that they feel accepted and welcomed.
When it comes to getting the word out about products for the LGBTQ community, Endicott suggested reaching out to publications, social service agencies and others that interact with the community and already have the community's trust.
"You're talking about an emerging community that has really been embattled in terms of discrimination and rights," he said. "Just because a law says that discrimination isn't legal doesn't mean that it isn't around."
Equality CU is has not yet opened its virtual doors, but expects to later this year. While it will be a state-chartered CU operating autonomously, the institution will work under the umbrella of a partner credit union's charter.
"The reason we've found it's easier to have a credit union for this community is because it allows for that trust and interaction to happen seamlessly," he said, noting that the structure of credit unions often allows them to be more sensitive to the needs of specific communities than the traditional banking sector might be.
"As gays and lesbians begin to get married, they will want to begin to form families and will want to go after that role model-ish family setup that they grew up in most likely," Endicott said. "A credit union is better set up just because of its nature to understand the implications that's going to have. That you don't just adopt kids and go about your business necessarily in raising a family, because there are going to be implications with having to interact with therapists and getting advice that have financial implications. And I think a credit union is better set-up to understand the emotional side of the financial obligations of people, whereas a bank is a little more cut and dried on the business side."