It's the Holy Grail of credit unions: a national branding campaign. Given the cooperative spirit, the shared philosophy and mutual values, you'd think it'd be a piece of cake.

Think again.

Just read our story about dividends, and you'll see why. That story was inspired by comments that were posted by previous coverage of special annual bonus dividends that some credit unions recently issued. In those comments, a couple of readers questioned the wisdom of issuing special dividends.

As a result of those comments, CU Journal reached out to a variety of credit union executives to ask if they were pro-dividend or anti-dividend. Anti-dividenders suggested CUs should focus on providing everyday value to members, rather than doing some big, flashy year-end dividend. Pro-dividenders suggested they ARE providing everyday value to their members, but the annual special dividend gives them the opportunity to blow their own horn and encourage potential members to join and existing members to do even more business with the CU.

Demonstrating the Difference

Moreover, the pro-dividenders argue, the special bonus dividend helps demonstrate the "credit union difference" in a concrete, tangible—and easily publicized—way.

But one anti-dividender suggested all that flashy press could just as easily draw negative attention, providing fodder for bankers to suggest that if CUs are so profitable, maybe they should be taxed.

We weren't expecting quite so wide a difference in thoughts about dividends when we first started posting stories about the credit unions that were issuing such payouts. It points to a couple of key issues:

1) Credit unions need to get away from "fuzzy math." One of the things CU Journal found when interviewing executives for this story was that no one could definitively say, on either side of the argument, "if we offered a dividend, we'd have to reprice our loans by X basis points and reprice our deposits by Y basis points," or "if we didn't offer a dividend, our loans could have been X basis points cheaper and our deposits could have been Y basis points greater." It's a theme I've mentioned before: it seems there are a lot of credit unions out there that aren't taking the time to do the math, to set concrete goals and monitor tangible results. Sure, some things really are just very hard to measure, but sometimes it's worth the effort to do it.

2) For as cooperative as credit unions are, there are about as many opinions on even the most seemingly innocuous issues as there are credit unions.

The latter point is also a more common theme than you might think. Take, for example, how to refer credit unions as a whole. If you're "old school," you proudly go with "credit union movement" and are offended when someone refers to it as an industry. If you're "new school," you cringe when someone calls it a "movement" and prefer industry. If you're politically correct and don't wish to offend either school, you probably use "community," or "credit union land" (though that last one does occasionally strike me as making it sound like a vast amusement park with such highlights as "the Magic EMV Kingdom," rather than a group of cooperative financial services providers).

Super Ads for Super-Sized CU

For several years now, Navy Fed has been doing national advertising during "Monday Night Football." "Sure," you're saying to yourself,  "Navy can do that – it's the biggest credit union on the face of the earth!" And you wouldn't be wrong, but…at least two credit unions that we know of bought local advertising time during the Super Bowl. A bunch of credit unions in Pennsylvania recently signed a local sponsorship deal with NBC's hit reality show, "The Voice."

More credit unions are realizing  the value—and the NEED—to drive stronger awareness of what a credit union even is, much less of a specific credit union's field of membership requirements.  Given the vast divergence of opinion in the CU movement/community/industry, there are still challenges ahead for any real national branding campaign to succeed, but I suspect if CUs take the time to do the math, they might discover it's high time to find a unified voice.

Editor in Chief Lisa Freeman can be reached at lisa.freeman@sourcemedia.com.