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5 Common Myths About Credit Union Brands

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All of us have our favorite brands, but why do we like them so much? Why do some brands resonate and others fall flat?

“Brand” can be hard to pinpoint — there are as many definitions as there are blog posts, articles, and marketing experts addressing the topic. Here’s one I especially like, from branding pioneer Walter Landor: “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”

Credit unions may not oversee any factory production lines, but in many ways, the relative uniformity of credit union products and services makes “brand” all the more challenging.

Think of the brands you’ve stood behind over the course of your life and the “whys” behind your choices. The must-have jeans in high school that would magically elevate your social standing. The car insurance that had to be good because it’s the kind your parents bought. The power tool brand you swore by because the guy on that fix-it show used it.

The powerful feelings we have about certain brands—and the not always logical choices they sometimes lead us to make—are evidence that for better or for worse, your credit union’s brand will never be completely within your control.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying, because, hey, it’s our job!

As you work to better define your credit union’s brand and what you can do to impact it, it’s important to understand not only what your brand is, but also what it isn’t. Here are five common myths about credit union branding and rebranding:


Myth #1: The marketing department owns your brand

It can be tempting to think that anything to do with your credit union’s brand falls strictly under the purview of your marketing team. But the reality is that anyone who’s associated with your credit union—from your staff to your members—plays a role in creating and sustaining how your credit union is perceived.

Allision Netzer, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at digital banking platform Nymbus, and co-author of the book, Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank, emphasized in a recent episode of The Remarkable Credit Union that brand belongs to every member and every employee. The marketing team might provide what she described as branding’s “raw materials,” but it’s what engaged employees and members do with them that matters.

Netzer also emphasizes the importance of recognizing that your employees are the best ambassadors of your brand. She says, “The marketing team might execute the brand, but we’re not responsible for the brand. As my friend Justin Dunn (CMO at WSFS Bank) says, ‘The most important part of your brand walks in every day at 9:00 and walks out at 5:00.’”

The experiences that members—and even the general public—have with your credit union’s employees significantly impact the day-to-day reality of how the marketplace views your brand. A credit union website can make any claims about its phenomenal member service that it wants, but are those claims backed up by Google reviews and lived experiences?

As we discussed in an earlier CUInsight post, Start your marketing with your employees, a single negative interaction with one of your employees has long-lasting implications. It can require anywhere from three to 12 positive interactions for a member or prospect to feel good about your credit union again. And there’s no guarantee that the person who experienced the negative interaction will give you the time and space to win them back.


Myth #2: Member service is your top brand differentiator

Clearly, exceptional member service is essential for the public to feel good about your brand, but it is not — I repeat not — a brand differentiator.

Ask your credit union peers what sets their credit union apart, and I’m guessing most of them will claim that their credit union is “friendlier” or “cares more.” But as Ben Stangland, President and COO of Strum, points out on The Remarkable Credit Union podcast, “Everyone can’t be the friendliest credit union out there.”

Quality member service is table stakes; credit unions must stand out from the financial services crowd, and particularly from other credit unions, in another way. According to Netzer, “The brands that stay, the brands that are compelling, carve out a niche and constantly solve problems.”

Doing that might require your credit union to go past the easy differentiators that appeal to the widest market. It might even require making some of your community members uncomfortable.

Says Stangland, “I’ve found that typically the more uncomfortable a credit union feels coming up with that differentiation, the more they’re willing to go beyond their comfort zone, the better the brand and the more they grow.”

UMe Federal Credit Union, for example, isn’t afraid to be playful in an industry that is not exactly known for its sense of humor. Some might visit its website and feel unsure about entrusting their hard-earned cash to a financial institution that employs a purple emu as its mascot and describes its checking accounts as “OMG-worthy.” But others will both appreciate and remember the playful humor; they may even open an account or apply for a loan because of it!

UMe isn’t afraid to be different, even if that means they are less likely to appeal to certain demographics. They have carved out their niche, and that’s what sets them apart.


Myth #3: Your mission is separate from your brand

Mission. Brand.

It’s not uncommon for credit unions to view their mission and brand as occupying two separate lanes. Yes, your mission may guide everything your credit union does but it tends to live in the background—seemingly set in stone and, let’s be honest, not something your average member or employee spends a lot of time thinking about.

But can your mission be your brand? Can it become the dynamic differentiator your credit union is known for? How could your mission potentially set you apart from the competition and better serve your community?

To revisit Netzer’s quote in the previous section, brands carve out a niche and they solve problems. A thoughtfully conceived mission is, at its heart, about solving problems. Netzer recommends treating your mission like a product and giving it the same amount of attention and due diligence.

Successfully marrying mission to brand requires a mission that’s authentic and that your members and employees value, believe in, and want to engage with. This doesn’t mean your mission has to be all things to all people, but it does mean taking the time to understand your community’s needs.

As we discussed in an earlier post, There’s a “new” trend in town: affinity-based big banks, having a mission that aligns with a more targeted niche can allow you to:

  • Deeply understand—and serve—the people who rely on your financial service
  • Innovate and scale up new programs and products more quickly and efficiently
  • Build a staff that closely aligns with the needs of the member community
  • Say “no” to opportunities that don’t meet a core need of your target

Says Stangland, “You have to stand for something. You have to stand for something and have a rallying cry around it that other people … can relate to.” Here are some mission statements from credit unions who have clear niches and strong, differentiated brands:

  • Clean Energy Credit Union: To promote clean energy, environmental stewardship, and cooperative enterprises through the financial services we provide to our members.
  • Point West Credit Union: To lift up the underserved, including immigrants, communities of color, and small businesses.
  • Self-Help Credit Union: To create and protect ownership and economic opportunity for all, especially people of color, women, rural residents and low-wealth families and communities.

When Randy Chambers, President of Self-Help Credit Union, joined The Remarkable Credit Union podcast, he talked about the brand value of 3rd-party designations that demonstrate Self-Help’s commitment to their mission, like being certified as a Community Development Financial Institution, a Minority Depository, and/or a Low Income Credit Union. “There’s that brand piece of, yes, we’re committed to this as who we are,” he says.


Myth #4: Rebranding means reinventing your credit union

It’s tempting to see a rebrand as a clean slate. “As marketers, we tend to want to start from scratch. We love blank sheets of paper—it’s just more fun,” says Netzer.

But the reality is more nuanced. Not always a redo, a rebrand should be your chance to focus on what you already do well, with the end goal of taking your organization to a place that reflects both who your credit union is today and how it can better meet the needs of your members going forward.

That’s all to say, rebrands shouldn’t be purely aspirational. We’ve all seen companies attempt reinventions that seem inauthentic or appear to be trying too hard, particularly when a company decides it needs to target a younger demographic.


Myth #5: A rebrand is a process with a defined beginning and end

New logo, new Pantone colors, new tagline and a splashy, multi-media reveal. You’ve got yourself an “official” rebrand!

But a rebrand is not a one-and-done overhaul; rather, it’s a continual process of iteration and adaptation. Says Netzer, “The rebranding process requires you to ask, ‘Can you innovate and evolve?’ ” She believes rebrands must go beyond language and style guides and that credit unions should identify opportunities throughout the year to evaluate what they’re doing well and where they want to go. Strategic planning, for example, is a great time to reflect on and prepare for the evolution of your brand.

But rebranding shouldn’t just happen in executive conference rooms. After all, your frontline employees have their fingers on the pulse of what members think and say about your credit union.

To integrate an “always rebranding” mindset at your credit union, make space to talk to employees and members to understand what’s important to them and act on what you learn.

At the end of the day, brand is a living, breathing entity that requires continual care and cultivation. It can be exciting to get a shiny new name, logo, and color palette, but these aren’t the essence of your brand. Rebranding is actually more about connecting with your core mission and unique strengths than it is about reinventing the wheel.

Of course, all credit unions want to offer great products and great member service, but neither of these are going to truly differentiate you. Your brand is a continual quest for your heart and soul, something that can both evolve and stand the test of time.

This article originally appeared in CUInsight.

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