CU Branding 101: Could your credit union cause a freakout?

In our CU Branding 101 series, I have expressed my opinion that credit unions are undifferentiated. To add to the confusion, there are actually three levels of undifferentiated consumer-facing credit union brands you as a credit union marketer have to deal with!

  1. The category: The credit union movement brand
  2. The organization: Your credit union brand
  3. The offer: Your product and service brands

Let's look at the impact that each level has on your credit union.

The credit union movement brand

After more than a century there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what a credit union is, what makes a credit union different and why that difference matters.

When we ask the general public to describe what a credit union is, we get responses that range from a shrug to credit unions are like banks, only smaller. A small percentage of folks will indicate one or two of the following: cooperative, member owned, involved in the community, great service, local decision making, friendly people, not-for-profit, too small, employer sponsored, exclusive and less sophisticated than banks.

To those that do understand what a credit union is, the credit union movement brand does have an impact on your credit union brand. The credit union movement brand creates a pre-disposition to be open to or closed to what your credit union has to offer. That is it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Your credit union brand

If most people don't understand what makes a credit union different from a bank, even less people understand what makes your credit union different from another credit union down the street.

In a competitive environment, your credit union not only needs to be perceived as different than the banks, it also has to be different from other credit unions in your marketplace. The little known category differentiators go out the window when folks are asked to identify what the difference is between competing credit unions.

Your product and service brands

And finally, if people don't understand what makes a credit union different from a bank and what makes your credit union different from the credit union down the street, then they really don't understand what makes your credit union's products and services different from everyone else's.

That's because credit union product and services aren't significantly different. This is why the financial services industry has been reduced to a commodity where most decisions are based solely on price.

With so little understanding, at what level should credit unions invest in brand building and marketing?

  1. The category. Should we promote the credit union movement brand? No. Let's skip category differentiation. The credit union difference just isn't different enough to throw millions of dollars at. After 100 years, either people get the difference or they don't.
    In the US, there is a heated debate going on about whether to mount a national credit union brand awareness campaign. Here is a link to a CUNA Marketing and Business Development white paper on the subject and a great post and comment string on Open Source CU to give you more background.
    Judging by provincial and state credit union promotions, credit unions can't decide on one compelling difference to promote consistently. There is no 'Got Milk' campaign waiting to be discovered. And to be frank, promoting nationwide ATM access doesn't exactly excite the masses.
    Again, remember that the only thing that branding and marketing at the category level is capable of is create a pre-disposition for against considering a credit union. Almost no sales or membership growth will come out of marketing and branding activity at the category level.
  2. The organization. Should you promote your credit union brand? Yes, you should discover and articulate your credit union brand internally and live and breathe your brand externally. Every employee and member needs to know what makes your credit union special.
    No, you should not mount a brand awareness campaign to promote your difference. Brand-only advertising for a credit union is a waste of money. Again, almost no sales or membership growth will come out of marketing and branding activity at the organization level.
  3. The offer. Should you promote your products and services? Yes, but only after you have defined a unique brand strategy and everyone in your organization understands what makes your credit union different from every other competing bank and credit union in your marketplace.
    This is the time to create unique and desirable products and services that support your brand and that fill a hole in your marketplace. Only through a complete market analysis and brand strategy process can real product innovation emerge.
    The offer is where the rubber meets the road. In our experience, the greatest benefits come from promoting a highly differentiated product or service. In doing so, you are promoting the offer and your organization—the two brand levels which matter most to your credit union. Sales and membership growth happen when you invest in marketing and branding activity at the offer level.

A real world example to prove my point

When we ask credit union marketers to list brands that matter, Apple is always included in the list. Think about this. Apple does not promote the category or the organization, Apple promotes its offers: the Mac, iPod, iPhone, Apple TV, iTunes, iLife, Mac OSX and Final Cut Pro to name a few. Through product innovation and consumers' experience with Apple's products (the offer), the Apple brand is built and propelled forward. The offer is where the money is made and the brand is built.

Back to the title of the post: Could your credit union cause a freakout?

Below is a video that is part of a new Burger King promotion, "The Whopper Freakout."

  1. The category: Fast food
  2. The organization: Burger King
  3. The offer: The Whopper

Watch this video and then ask yourself, does your credit union have an offer on its menu that members are so passionate about that, if removed, would cause a massive freakout? Does your credit union have the equivalent of a Burger King Whopper?

Boy, that was a long post to prove a simple point. Offer great products and services and the rest will take care of itself.


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