What’s in a Name?

 The term ‘member’ can imply barriers to admission.

July 12, 2012

I think we’d all agree credit unions have an awareness issue.

A lot of consumers, especially younger ones, are confused with the concept of credit unions. Nearly 70% of nonmembers ages 18 to 24 are “not at all familiar” with credit unions. And nearly 80% of consumers in that age group don’t know if they’re eligible to join. That’s an awareness issue.

We don’t talk about “customers,” we talk about “members.” Credit union people familiar with the language understand the word “member” and all the benefits it entails.

But people who don’t speak our credit union language hear the word “member” and immediately think of barriers to admission. We think “benefits” but nonmembers think “barriers.” That’s an awareness issue.

Are credit unions “open” communities or “closed” communities? We know we’re open communities, but nonmembers think we’re closed communities. That’s an awareness issue.

Alex Matjanec of attempted to illustrate the awareness problem when he spoke about Gen Y issues at the National Credit Union Roundtable conference last month.
He asked Siri (the iPhone’s query tool) to find him a list of credit unions in the San Francisco area. Siri came back with a list of 10 banks. That’s an awareness issue.

I had lunch last month with the CEO and the board chair of Australia’s largest credit union—Credit Union Australia (CUA).

I told them about the awareness issue in the U.S. and asked if they had similar problems Down Under. “We gave up on the word ‘member’ long ago in favor of ‘customer-owned,’” said Chris Whitehead, CUA’s CEO.

The word “member” implies a closed or exclusive community, he explained, and Australian credit unions quit trying to change that public perception many years ago.

Agreeing that there’s an awareness problem is one thing; agreeing on what to do about it is entirely different. The lack of agreement has led to inaction. And inaction is jeopardizing future growth.

The average age of credit union members is 47 years old. One-third of members are in the peak borrowing years of 25 to 44—down from one-half of all members in 1990. And 9% of members are in the 18 to 24 age bracket, unchanged from 1990.

Nobody wants, nor can they afford, an expensive national adver­tising campaign right now. What’s needed is an effective, efficient awareness campaign that uses social media to clear up consumer confusion. We might even have to tweak our language to become more intuitive and user-friendly.