More than six years after Bank Transfer Day, the marketing theme of “better than banks” shows no sign of slowing down.

That’s the case at Arlington Federal Credit Union, where one of the credit union’s newest marketing slogans is “Arlington’s favorite bank is not a bank at all, it’s a credit union,” according to COO Kim Plaugher.

With Bank Transfer Day’s sixth anniversary having just passed on Nov. 5, Ryan Donovan, chief advocacy officer with the Credit Union National Association, said the event still serves as a good reminder of the advantages credit unions have to offer, and remains relevant as credit unions continue to capitalize on consumers’ frustrations with traditional banks.

One credit union that continues to benefit from that sentiment is Truliant FCU, which operates throughout Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. According to Chief Marketing Officer Karen DeSalvo, at one point there were 13 different bank mergers taking place in the areas surrounding Truliant’s branches, which led to the credit union seizing a marketing opportunity when represenatives noticed an influx of new members coming into their branches because their old bank had been merged out.

“There’s a lot of members in our community who are getting frustrated because they don’t even know what their bank’s name is anymore, let alone what they stand for,” said DeSalvo.

Truliant structured its marketing campaign in multiple phases which were rolled out over time in order to target specific community areas at just the time the community would feel the most pain from the mergers.

“When banks merge, usually there are some additional fees, and there are other things that go on that frustrate people. It really causes people to switch institutions,” said DeSalvo.

‘Unbanking’

Connex Credit Union has relied on a similar theme for years. Back in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, the credit union established an entire brand based on consumer frustration. At the time, said EVP Carl Casper, there was a broadside against big banks, which led Connex to label itself the “unbank.”

The credit union still uses the label today, but Casper suggested it has evolved from an intentionally anti-bank message to a rhetorical way for Connex to emphasize its focus on member advocacy, a key aspect of its mission to “improve the lives of our members, one member at a time.”

“You’re not going to get the banking treatment here. You’re going to be treated as an individual every time you come in, every interaction you have with us,” said Casper. “Where banks are profit driven, we are not. We are not a bank – we’re the unbank.”

Too broad a brush?

As with many things in the credit union movement, the banking lobby isn’t too crazy about being portrayed in such a negative manner. According to Aaron Stetter, policy and political director for the Independent Community Bankers of America, that sort of rhetoric paints traditional banks with too broad a brush. Many of the community banks ICBA represents share credit unions’ frustration with the big banks.

“Community banks should not have to pay for the sins of the Wells Fargos of the world,” said Stetter.

The way credit unions market themselves is often an issue with banks, who will report advertisement they perceive to be dishonest or unfair to their trade associations, who in turn advocate for policy changes on Capitol Hill, according to Stetter.

“We don’t like the idea that credit unions market themselves like they are banks,” said Christopher Cole, senior regulatory council for ICBA.

“You have one taxed entity and one tax-exempt entity essentially vying for the same customer base in many instances, where one is highly advantaged over the other, based on what we feel is an unfair advantage,” explained Stetter.

As of yet these issues of contention have not gotten in the way of trade associations working together on the legislative issues that affect them both, such as data security or housing finance reform.

Both ICBA’s Stetter and CUNA’s Donovan suggested the relationship will always be a balancing act, a fine line between working together to represent common interest and competing in the marketplace.

But many in the credit union movement say advertisements that paint banks in a bad light are really just a way to focus on what CUs do well, and using banks – and their reputations – has proven to be an effective way to explain the credit union difference to consumers. Many, after all, are still unfamiliar with the movement, which can create additional hurdles for marketers.

The term “member,” DeSalvo noted, often causes confusion when used in advertisement, and in her experience can lead lead people to think there are additional hoops to jump through in order to join and set up accounts.

In an attempt to circumvent such hurdles, CUNA has been conducting research on what perceptions exist about credit unions in order to create a national awareness campaign. In 2018 CUNA plans to issue a series of pilot programs to test whether the campaign is effective in the marketplace.

Sticking with what works

Until consumers are more aware of credit unions, marketers will likely continue to rely on strategies that define what they are by what they are not.

This is the premise of Arlington FCU’s “not a bank” campaign, which was originally created as a way to address the differences between a credit union and a bank. The first campaign hit the streets in the summer of 2015 – quite literally. Suzie Cook, director of marketing, said staff members would get lunch together during work while wearing shirts with “Notabank.org” printed on the front, hoping to start conversations. The initial response was “phenomenal” according to Cook, and the tag line stuck. Arlington FCU is now on its third iteration of the campaign.

Staffers from Arlington Federal Credit Union in t-shirts from the CU's "Not a bank" campaign.
Staffers from Arlington Federal Credit Union in t-shirts from the CU's "Not a bank" campaign.

Cook said the message remains popular among millennials in part because of Arlington FCU’s focus on community involvement, which often includes employee volunteering.

“We run into a lot of millennials and we have those conversations because we’re both there doing something for the common good of our community,” said Cook.

Arlington FCU wanted its campaign to be a little more “in-your-face” and establish themselves as a strong competitor in the local field. Cook did however mention Arlington FCU did not want to step on toes or suggest that banks were bad.

Truliant is similarly mindful of how its advertising portrays banks, with DeSalvo noting concern over banks and their trade associations that are lobbying for changes in regulation concerning the tax exemptions credit unions are given.

DeSalvo said Truliant does not want to “poke banks in the eye” and cause them to lobby further. “I have seen some credit unions really take kind of a direct approach to punching banks, and we try to take a subtle approach,” she said.

Tina Snieder

Tina Snieder

Tina Snieder is an American Banker intern from Providence Christian College.