CU Branding 101: What's the difference and does it matter?

There were many highlights at the FORUM Solution/Trabian Partnership Symposium, but the best part to me was the unveiling of the CU Skeptic. We now all know that the CU Skeptic is Mark McSpadden from The Garland Group and the host of Banktastic TV's the CU Scoop.

Mark did a great job of presenting his case. One of the screens that he employed to prove his point was simply titled "The Difference Between Credit Unions and Banks" which was followed immediately by a blank screen. In Mark's sub-30 Gen Y opinion, there is absolutely nothing different between the two. We can all go on and on about the member ownership, the not-for-profit structure and the community centered focus, but to the Skeptic and in his estimation, to the general public these things either don't matter or are completely invisible.

Mark's blogging as the Skeptic grew out of being tired of the credit union cheerleaders (including yours truly) blogging about how great and different credit unions are.

Does the difference between credit unions and banks even matter?

The problem with this age old comparison is that the differences are subtle and the differences are often different!

Ultimately, each credit union needs to be relevant and desirable to its own members. This point was brought home by William Azaroff presenting his story about Vancity (400,000 members and $14B in assets) and Gene Blishen presenting his story about Mount Lehman Credit Union (2,000 members and $40M in assets).

Other than both being credit unions, these two institutions have absolutely nothing in common. This is a good thing, because both serve a very different group of people and both of these credit unions are very successful.

So why the fixation on a national brand campaign?

A recurring theme at these events and online is the need for a nationwide brand awareness campaign in the US to illustrate the difference between credit unions and banks. In theory, this is a good idea, but the main problem is that large groups of credit unions can never agree on a compelling universal difference.

Since hearing the Skeptic's talk, I have had this mock meeting conversation rattling around in my head.

The scene: the Motel Owners Association National Convention

300 motel stakeholders have congregated to discuss the need for a national branding campaign.

"We need to get the word out that motels are better than hotels. Those hotel guys are eating our lunch."
"Yeah, hotels are all about making the big profits. Motels are an affordable alternative. So first of all, let's decide on what makes us different."
"Doors on the outside?"
"No, we have halls at our motel."
"How about anything under two floors?"
"Nope, we have three floors."
"Kitchenettes?"
"No. Some hotels have kitchenettes. We can't use that."
"What if we go after the business practices of the hoteliers?"
"Not our style. Besides, we'll have the tourism regulators kill our campaign."

Two hours later after serious brainstorming and debate, two final message emerge that all 300 conference delegates can agree on:

"Motels... Our towels are slightly scratchier."
"Motels... It is 68% fewer steps on average from car to pillow."

But perhaps now there is a compelling difference that needs to be told

With the big banks in the US in an endless downward spiral, now would be the time to promote a unifying difference between credit unions and banks. A message of trust would resonate more today than ever before.

Will it happen? Not likely. There are too many cooks and there is fear of casting any doubt towards the stability of the big banks.

Bottom line:

Defining and promoting your credit union's brand is your problem. Do everything you can to stand out against the competitors in your marketplace. Lean on some of the global credit union differences if that makes sense in your situation or define your own difference and stick to it over time.

The CU Skeptic provided all of the Symposium attendees with a splash of cold water. Thanks Mark!

Tim