Building a Credit Union Brand

December 9, 2016

by Lance Parman

Credit Unions often feel at a disadvantage when it comes to branding. Compared to big national banks with deep pockets, credit union marketers sometimes see the challenge as insurmountable. In reality, most credit unions are in a better position than they realize. While the prolific advertising campaigns and customized digital tools of banks require a substantial financial investment, a brand is based on reputation. And that is something no amount of money can buy.

One of my favorite quotes is, “A brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room." It is the essence of who you are as an organization and what you stand for. It is based on sincerity, not salesmanship. The dirty little secret is that credit unions—an industry with a long history of working in the best interest of members instead of shareholders—typically have better reputations than banks. As a result, credit union brands are often easier to build because they have a proven history of serving their members and local communities. National banks can spend millions saying the customer comes first, but consumers know better.

So how does a local credit union build a brand that can actually compete with the onslaught of big bank advertising? Here are a few simple steps:

Know the status of your brand

It's always difficult to see the organization when you work on the inside. Seeing your credit union the way the community sees it is a challenge. It's the familiar "can't see the forest for the trees" problem. Here's where member surveys and community research can be helpful. It's important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your current brand in order to determine the best way to move forward. Be careful not to base your brand building efforts on employee opinions and perceptions. Their perception—as well as your own—can be very different from that of the general public.

Don't be afraid of specialization

Know who you are and who you are not. There are things you do especially well. And if we are honest, there are areas of weakness too. Recognizing your credit union's strengths is important, because those are the areas to leverage as you build the brand. As you consider the inventory of strengths and weaknesses, decisions will need to be made about what is most important for your future. Trying to be everything to everyone may force you to spread your resources too thin resulting in a diminished member experience. Stick with what you're good at, and build a reputation for being the best in those areas.

Be real. Be consistent.

Authenticity matters, especially to millennials. Promising one thing in your marketing message and delivering another when people walk into your branch is a problem. Branding requires honesty and credibility. Be careful not to oversell your strengths. Consumers appreciate a brand that is genuine and predictable.

Internalize your brand

Branding isn't just a marketing exercise. In fact, it's much more of an in-house exercise. Your executives and employees should be walking the walk before your marketing department talks the talk. Discuss your brand at executive and staff meetings so that employees understand what your credit union is all about. Your front line employees will either validate or undermine the brand each time they interact with your members.

Test, retest, and optimize

It's important to build a feedback loop into your branding efforts. Every year or two, ask your members for feedback. Gather information that will help you determine how effective your marketing and branding efforts have been. The information will also provide invaluable insight as to where you need to make adjustments. Branding is an ongoing exercise that will evolve as your organization evolves year after year.

If you’d like to talk with Gazillion & One about building your organization's brand, contact us online or call (616) 842-7000 to get the conversation started.

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