Demonstrate the difference
Patricia Kimmel, president/CEO of $269 million asset Belvoir Federal Credit Union, Woodbridge, Va.,
takes a daily walk through the credit union to make sure employees are demonstrating the credit union difference.
“We’re all busy,” she says, “and it’s easy to get caught up in daily operations and not prioritize the need to differentiate ourselves from the competition. In fact, many credit union employees on the front line don’t know the credit union difference. As credit union leaders, we have to stay involved with employees and members to make sure our message is being delivered properly and is being heard.”
Belvoir Federal is working on a new training module that will educate its team on credit union history, legislative changes, and the overall basic cooperative nature of credit unions. “Through this type of education and reinforcement, all our employees will
be prepared to explain the credit union difference,” she says.
But she agrees with Hedrick that you can’t just tell people about the difference, you have to demonstrate it. Belvoir Federal, for example, has a high interest-rate checking account that pays better than any other area checking account in the credit union’s market. It has a higher rate, in fact, than competitors’ basic passbook savings accounts.
The credit union also offers a special checking account for active-duty military members. It pays dividends, rebates surcharges, and includes bill-payment services.
Belvoir Federal also uses social media to boost consumer awareness. “During the holiday season we used our YouTube channel for members to come in and film short holiday greetings for loved ones they couldn’t be with. We offered this for free, and recorded about 75 holiday greetings.”
The erosion of consumer awareness is a challenge not a crisis, says Kimmel. Belvoir Federal’s field of membership is primarily military personnel who have a good grasp of how credit unions are different. But outside the military, she says, most Americans lump credit unions with banks.
How can your credit union increase consumer awareness? It boils down to two major points: innovation and great storytelling, says Kimmel.
Credit unions have to constantly work to differentiate themselves with innovative products that differ in significant ways from the standard banking community.
“Clearing up consumer confusion is also all about education, word-of-mouth, and telling our story,” she adds. “Our website provides ‘good news’ stories about member experiences, but it’s even better for our members to tout the credit union difference.”
Cooperative advertising campaigns are a great way to improve consumer awareness, she says. “Competition between credit unions has impaired some cooperation that should exist. There’s just not enough being done collectively to get our message out there.
“If each credit union does its job of educating members, nonmembers, and their communities,” she adds, “we can make inroads and overcome the confusion. It’s going to take time and a group effort, but I believe it can be done.”
New Website to Boost CU Visibility
While not everyone understands why credit unions are a wise choice, the tide is turning, says Mark Wolff, CUNA’s senior vice president of communications. “After the financial meltdown, many people have had it with big banks, and they’re looking for local, consumer-friendly alternatives like credit unions,” he says.
Help is on the way. CUNA and the leagues are poised to launch a new consumer awareness website that will help more consumers learn about credit unions and find one to join.
The website has the Web address asmarterchoice.org, which will be presented in the context of media stories, Web postings, and social media venues explaining that choosing a credit union is a smarter choice for great service and good deals on financial services, says Wolff.
“We’re expanding the reach of the findacreditunion.com locator to all 50 states,” he says. “It will be the most comprehensive locator out there—including all credit unions of all sizes, charters, and locations. Our research told us we need a locator tool that recommends credit unions not just by proximity, but by eligibility of the inquirer. The site will also promote and reinforce the benefits of credit union membership, through testimonials and positive media coverage.”
The site’s purpose is to reinforce and complement state-level advertising. “We also envision a social media element—such as tweeting, blogs, and social media forums,” says Wolff. “One of our key audiences is young adults, so we’ll use social media to keep the site’s content updated and fresh.”Historically, credit unions haven’t used advertising aggressively. But times are changing, says Mark Wolff, CUNA’s senior vice president of communications. “People see far more bank advertising than credit union advertising,” he says, “and that has had an effect on consumer awareness.”
Today, more credit unions are using savvy advertising strategies, and they’re attracting attention, he adds. “Credit unions’ more aggressive marketing approach captured the attention of The New York Times in a front-page business section story this past year.
“I’ve seen more local credit union TV commercials in the past three years than in the past 27 years combined,” adds Wolff, who has lived in the Washington, D.C., area for 30 years. “Today, with more SEGs [select employee groups] and community charters, it makes more economic sense for credit unions to aggressively advertise. In the old days, such a strategy would reach too many people who would be ineligible to join.”
Viral campaigns also have helped increase credit union awareness, says Wolff. The Huffington Post’s “Move Your Money” campaign urges consumers to move their money from big banks to local credit unions and community banks.