The following letter to the editor appears in this week’s edition of the CU Times:
I read with great interest Paul Gentile’s column in January, calling for a national credit union branding campaign. However, I would argue that such an effort is actually damaging to the credit union movement, and especially hurts smaller credit unions. That is true for statewide cooperative advertising campaigns as well.
I’ve had the great pleasure of talking with many credit union marketing professionals across the country, asking them what sets their credit union apart from the one down the street who serves exactly the same geographic region. Surprisingly, the answers I get are nearly always the same – we have friendlier, more personal service, we’re convenient, and we offer all the same products and services as every other financial institution.
Well, guess what? Every other bank and credit union is saying the same thing. I know that someone is making stuff up because it’s impossible for EVERY institution in an area to all be the friendliest, with the most personal service, and be the most convenient. And it’s NOT a point of differentiation that an institution offers all the same products and services as every other one.
A national branding campaign, or a statewide co-op advertising program, simply perpetuates the myth that all credit unions are the same. If they are all the same, then why isn’t there just one national credit union serving the entire country? It seems like that is where the world is headed—we’ll be left with just one giant mega-bank, and one giant credit union.
By definition, a national or statewide campaign can only paint a generic picture of credit unions. It doesn’t have the opportunity to point out the special differences of different credit unions – what makes them unique and truly distinctive.
The other problem with a national or statewide campaign is that it helps the bigger credit unions disproportionately to smaller credit unions – which is exactly the opposite effect that is usually desired. Why is that? Here’s why: Say you are a consumer who is actually motivated by the commercial to switch your bank accounts over to a credit union. (In our focus group research across the country, we have yet to find someone who has actually switched because of an ad—it’s always through family, friend, or colleague referrals.) But say you do decide to switch. Where are you going to switch to? One that you’ve heard of before, which is going to be one of the larger ones in the region who can afford to do their own additional advertising.
What credit unions don’t realize is that the exclusivity of their original charters WAS their strength and point of differentiation from all other institutions. People are comfortable with people they have something in common with. Now that that difference has disappeared from most credit unions, we need to find other meaningful ways to differentiate. And those CUs that remain “pure” must hold on to, and crank up their exclusivity to the max.
Large and small credit unions alike need to differentiate themselves or lose relevance in today’s world. And each credit union needs to hone and refine their own unique brand, and strengthen the emotional connection it has with its members. And it doesn’t require a big advertising budget to do it. When you have a great story, and you tell it well, word will spread, and that’s something more valuable than any advertising campaign.