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Most Credit Union Rebrands Overlook This One Crucial Thing

Photos common to credit union and bank websites

If you’ve worked at your credit union for a good chunk of time, chances are you’ve been around for a rebrand (or two). Sometimes it’s a name change that inspires the rebrand, sometimes it’s a recognition that your logo and color palette are starting to look hopelessly out of date.

Whatever the reason, a rebrand presents a wonderful opportunity to step back, reconnect with your WHY, examine what sets you apart, and determine how you want your credit union to express its identity moving forward.

While recently judging submissions for the 2023 CUNA Diamond Awards in the “Re-brand/New Corporate Identity” category, I truly enjoyed seeing all the “befores” and “afters” and learning about how and why each credit union had arrived at certain colors, design elements, and brand voice guidelines.

Overall, the work I saw was excellent… except for one thing.

Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive, but in my mind, there is nothing that compromises a unique brand identity more than a heavy reliance on generic stock photos. As someone who has helped design credit union websites for nearly five years, I’ve seen so many banking product-related stock photos that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve seen them all. For instance:

  • Woman with manicured nails holding a mobile phone
  • Young person with sunglasses and windswept hair driving a car
  • Way-too-happy family in an empty room filled with cardboard boxes
  • Way-too-happy couple in overalls painting the walls of an empty room
  • Way-too-happy retired couple out living their best life

You get the idea. I fully understand the appeal of stock photos—and, full transparency, we’ve regularly relied on them in website redesigns. They’re easy to find, and particularly handy when you’re looking for photos that complement certain color palettes or evoke certain moods.

But the appeal doesn’t come without trade-offs. For instance:

They tend to be bland. Stock photos typically lack personality. They don’t leave an impression. They don’t create strong feelings. They’re instantly forgotten. Click through a couple websites and I can nearly guarantee you’ll be able to pick out which shots are stock.

They don’t reflect your community. Stock photo models have that canned quality that screams, “Fake!” They tend to be thin, good-looking, and impeccably dressed. They don’t look like my family, or my friends, or my neighbors. And unless you specifically search for terms like “elderly couple” or “old woman,” the models skew young. Photos of middle-aged women, like myself, are even harder to find.

Online viewers value good imagery. Most of your members intersect with your credit union brand online. Research from MDG Advertising found that more than two-thirds (67%) of online shoppers prioritized images—and even valued them over product specific information, long descriptions, and reviews and ratings. While credit unions don’t offer products and services that require a vivid photo for the sale (like, say, a fuzzy sweater or mouth-watering dessert), the reality is, we live in a visual culture and images shouldn’t be an afterthought.

Some other company may already be using “your” image. Although the risk is lower than it used to be (see this funny story about the “Everywhere Girl”), any time you go the stock photo route, you could be using an image that’s already tied to another company in the viewer’s mind. I once saw a photo I recognized from one of our client’s auto loan pages plastered on a billboard for an auto insurance company. In an industry that already struggles with differentiation, stock photos only further the risk of a viewer confusing your credit union with another company.

So, how do you add more personality and verve into your branding efforts without breaking your marketing budget? Interestingly, some of our smaller clients are the ones that have prioritized an intentional image strategy that doesn’t rely exclusively on stock photos — if at all.

Here are three strategies we’ve seen that truly help our clients stand out from the fray.


Photos of actual members and actual employees

A photo shoot might seem like a heavy lift, but we would argue that it’s well worth the effort. Telling your brand story with real members and staff conveys your authentic self in a way no professional model ever could—plus, you’ll save on talent fees.

PointWest. PointWest brings its “banking without borders” commitment to life with an array of real member photos that capture its diverse membership makeup.

Hawaii State Federal Credit Union. Hawaii State knew it couldn’t effectively reach members and prospects by relying on mostly white or ethnically ambiguous stock photo models. It was important that visitors saw themselves reflected in the imagery on their website. After a member photo shoot, some site visitors now literally see themselves in the imagery!

Pacific Crest Federal Credit Union. Pacific Crest’s website features not just members, but also team members, which helps to humanize the credit union and enhance its homey, small-town vibe. The Sasquatch lurking in the background is a nice touch, too.

Tip: Even if you’re able to pull off a photo shoot, sometimes you might have other image needs. Consider using a stock photo site like JumpStory. This platform bills itself as providing a library of “authentic and ‘real’” stock images, and you’re likely to find shots you won’t see elsewhere.


Photos that reinforce your local brand by offering a strong sense of place

Abilene Teachers Federal Credit Union. A famous landmark could come from any stock photo house. But a quirky one, especially if it just happens to include a cute kid, creates a visual experience that is yours alone.

Peninsula Credit Union. We love how Peninsula added a local flavor to its Small Business Checking page by featuring… a real small business! For credit unions that offer business products, this is an often untapped opportunity to reinforce your community focus while shining a spotlight on your most beloved business members.

DC Credit Union. As someone who has lived in Washington, DC, I can say with confidence that most stock photo homes bear no resemblance to the row houses the city is known for. That’s why I was so happy to see our client feature a real DC home on its home loans page.

Tip: Want to engage members and build a library of authentic local photos? Conduct a member photo contest. If you need a local shot in a pinch, try a Creative Commons search on Flickr (be sure it’s licensed for commercial use). You’re much more likely to bypass glossy skyline shots and find photos of real neighborhoods and local landmarks.


Graphics and illustrations instead of photos

UMe, Allegacy, and Embold websites

UME Credit Union. UMe was the first website we designed that had no photos whatsoever. The site relies entirely on bold graphics, colorful icons, and occasional appearances by the credit union’s mascot, a purple emu. It’s a bold move, but it definitely helps UMe stand out from the crowd.

Allegacy Credit Union. While we’re fans of website photography, we also find that credit unions can have a tendency to overuse photos just to make a page look more “interesting.” If photos peppered throughout a website page are not particularly relevant to the content, the imagery loses its “oomph.” Allegacy prioritizes photos in its “hero” spot, then relies on graphic elements and custom illustrations to help draw attention to content rather than distract from it.

Embold Credit Union. Sometimes, meaningful graphic elements can be far more powerful than another ho-hum stock photo. Embold uses background tree and pinecone motifs to reinforce its Pacific Northwest identity.

Tip: Is there a local illustrator with a robust social presence who would be interested in partnering with you? They might be excited to talk you up, and you might get some added publicity through their social channels.  

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but let’s be honest — it depends on the picture. When it comes to marketing, today’s seen-it-all consumers demand an authentic brand experience.

If you’re in the midst of a rebrand, or there’s a rebrand on the horizon, consider an alternate image strategy before you make a beeline to Shutterstock. It’s a golden, and often untapped, opportunity to truly elevate your brand.


This story originally appeared on CUInsight

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