Takeaways from CO-OP THINK 14

Speakers examined branding and new-media marketing during the event this week in New Orleans.

May 21, 2014


“I get really excited about the future growth of our industry,” said Samantha Paxson, looking back on the first two days of Think 14. The vice president of marketing for CO-OP Financial Services kicked off the third day of the conference by reviewing the results of a survey CO-OP sent to CU leaders and employees attending Think 14.

Most respondents felt that the CU movement needed more national awareness. Some ideas for generating mass excitement for the CU brand were a national ad campaign similar to the “Got Milk” ads and creating a product or financial service that was unique to CUs. When asked why these ideas weren’t happening, some of the responses were a lack of courage and a prevailing “old school” mentality. 


When planning for the future, CUs have to provide members with what they want, said Ivan Askwith, a producer and consultant who was head of digital for Lucasfilm. The reason the railroad industry collapsed, Askwith said, is because “they thought they were in the business of railroads instead of transportation.” 
To avoid a similar fate, CUs need to offer members what they want, tell them what they want to hear, and forge stronger connections with them. Drawing parallels to the world of entertainment and brands such as “Star Wars,” Askwith said members will use your services but fans “will evangelize for you.” 
“When fans love something they actually fight for it,” Askwith said. 


From left: Chris Chippindale, VP, Ent FCU, Colorado Springs, Michael Sullivan, EVP/CIO, McGrew Hill Employees FCU, East Windsor, NJ, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Randi Zuckerberg participated in a panel discussion about social media.

"Social media is free like a puppy is free," Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, said. Just creating a Facebook page or a Pinterest board isn't enough, she said. "Social media is a commitment for life."

During her presentation Tuesday afternoon, Zuckerberg highlighted some CUs engaging with their members through fun, unique social media initiatives, such as Firefighters Community CU's Pinterest board for thank you notes members sent them.

During the panel discussion, Vaynerchuk said using social media is a good idea, but it's how an organization uses it that matters. He said CUs have to ask, "Does it actually get people to give you their business?"

Right now Vaynerchuk said the bank brand is terrible, but it's better than it was a few years ago. "If you don't act now you're going to miss a golden opportunity," he said.

"Yes, we need to do more—and we need to focus on doing more—but I don't think we're not doing anything," Chippindale said. 

Vaynerchuk said that from a raw data standpoint, the fact that the average CU member is getting older is a "heavy vulnerability."


Caroline Willard, vice president of markets and strategy for CO-OP Financial Services, introduced the THINK 14 General Session audience to the values of the millennial generation:

  • Millennials see the benefits of both banks and credit unions.
  • They embrace disruption.
  • Amazon is their favorite company because of its superior customer experience.
  • They give 6% of their monthly income to charities.
  • They're less trusting than previous generations.

"For millennials, everything starts with authenticity," Willard said. Millennials still believe banks have the advantage in the range of services and online platforms, but credit unions have the edge on trust. To reach millennials, Willard said, credit unions must offer choice, convenience, and connection. 


Gary Vaynerchuk said there was only one skill that made him successful. "The only thing I do well is market in the year we actually live in," Vaynerchuk said. His experience includes starting a neighborhood chain of lemonade stands before he was 10, earning $40,000 as a 14-year-old selling baseball cards, and launching the $45 million e-commerce business winelibrary.com in his early 20s.

Marketing is taking place on new media such as Twitter, Snapchat, and targeted Facebook ads, Vaynerchuk said, and at a time when the number of messages vying for consumers' attention is greater than ever. The way the Internet has changed people's lives is on par with the Industrial Revolution. "This is the single biggest cultural shift of all time."

CUs can't afford to worry about alienating existing members as a reason for not innovating, said Vaynerchuk. The culture is getting younger. "Do you know what the fastest growing sector of selfies is? It's 42-year-old females," he said.

As a cautionary tale he mentioned Blockbuster, who declined to buy Netflix for $50 million because it believed people liked the customer-service experience of browsing movie titles in a local store. "Do not be romantic about how you make your money," Vaynerchuk said.


Inciting change at your CU through collaboration is easier to talk about than do, said Welby Altidor, director of creation for Cirque du Soleil. He experienced an epiphany trying to improve the operations of his own organization. "I realized every time I was complaining about not being able to collaborate with my colleagues, I was doing the same thing they were doing."
Collaborate is a verb, said Altidor, and he took it upon himself to build bridges between teams and projects instead of complaining about how it doesn't happen. One project he worked on was understanding who Cirque de Soleil's audience is. "You have to understand the aspirations of the audience you're trying to move," Altidor said. 


We are living through the age of branding, according to Debbie Millman, president, design division at Sterling Brands. "Branding has become key to any message, whether internal or external," Millman said.
Unlike in the past, today people don't look at new brands to communicate ineffable qualifities and associations, they want to know, "How is this going to make a difference in my life?" Millman said. CUs should think about how to communicate their unified brand because even the term "credit union" can be vaguely menacing--"the word 'credit' especially," said Millman--and not enough people know what "credit union" means.


When Gigi Hyland mentions she works with CUs, 90% of the time the person gives her a blank look, the executive director of the National CU Foundation said at a breakout session on achieving differentiation.

"The challenge is how to explain ourselves in a way that really resonates with members and consumers," Hyland said.

Hyland explained CUs are good at "walking the walk," but they need to do a better job of "talking the talk."

"You don't want to be the best-kept secret," Hyland said.

By fostering relationships with other entities in the community, such as fellow cooperatives and nonprofits, Hyland said CUs can raise awareness of who they are and better communicate the powerful message that they're there to "help people afford life."


Contributions to charities and nonprofits should be part of any successful marketing plan, said Philips McCarty, during a session about CU differentiation.

McCarty, founder of Good Scout Group, said 90% of consumers—and especially millennials—want companies to talk about the causes they support.

CUs shouldn't be afraid to tout the good they're doing and use strategic philanthropy as part of their marketing, McCarty said.


CUs need to get serious about growing their credit card business. That's the message Tim Kolk, president of TRK Advisors, Boston, gave CO-OP Financial Services Think 14 conference attendees during a session on sustainable payments revenue.

"A credit card can last decades," Kolk said, adding that its revenue return is three times more than any other kind of loan.

Kolk said CUs need to get away from emphasizing their cards' low rate. "It doesn't matter as much as we want it to," he said. Instead, he urged CUs to focus on understanding their member base's market segmentation and creating customized loyalty programs.


"EMV (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa) will be the new norm," said Michelle Thornton, manager of core products for CO-OP Financial Services.

During a session on mastering operational challenges, Thornton emphasized that credit unions shouldn't ignore EMV because it's not a passing fad, but rather the new industry standard.

The EMV chip cards will prevent some types of fraud, but won't prevent data breaches like what happened at Target, Thornton said. But, she noted, in the future if fraud happens at a store that doesn't have an EMV-enabled payment system, the liability will be on the store rather than the CU.

"EMV is really not a project; it’s a new way of doing business," Thornton said.