Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Key to Consistency in the Brand Experience of Credit Unions

Most marketing and advertising execs would agree that a brand is the total experience one has of an organization. This includes its history, reputation and the caliber of its staff; its products and services, how they are packaged, priced and named; its style of communication and advertising.

Let’s now apply the same definition to credit unions.

If the very nature of a credit union’s brand is the experience we have of the credit union as previously defined, can we ever possibly hope to establish a national branding campaign for America’s credit unions? Such an effort would appear to remain forever evasive to our grasp simply because there could be no consistency. Credit unions are all over the map when it comes to providing one common, consistent experience of what they are and what they stand for within America’s financial services marketplace. Or, is the achievement of consistency much simpler and accessible than we think?

My personal experience of brand development and management came when I was employed by The Ritz-Carlton back in the late nineties, when the hotel company was seeking to capture its second Malcolm Baldrige Service Quality Award. As a member of the leadership team, we all worked very hard to earn that second award. By doing so, we proved the first Baldrige award was no fluke. We proved that The Ritz-Carlton was by far the best, par excellence, when it came to lodging accommodations and service.

One of the branding lessons I learned during my employment at The Ritz-Carlton was the importance of consistency. It was extremely important for a guest to receive the same, exact, five-star Ritz-Carlton experience whether the guest was staying at our Dubai property, the Marco Island resort or at our Marina del Rey, California, property where I worked. Consistency meant that a guest always knew what to expect and what to count on when walking into any Ritz-Carlton hotel, anywhere.

That consistent emotional feeling associated with pleasurable memories of the finest quality in accommodations coupled with attentive and personalized service, are at the foundation and strength of the Ritz-Carlton brand. Delivering that value proposition was drilled into us, over and over again as “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” We all lived by the Ritz Credo, “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. . .” Such efforts further defined our brand and the Ritz-Carlton way. And, the experience was exactly the same for every property, everywhere throughout the world.

Can the same be said of consistency across America’s many credit unions?

Certainly there are credit unions distinguished for having a very strong presence among the underserved, compelled to provide an alternative to the local payday lenders. Others venture down a different path, being known more for their ability to deliver a greater rate of return or perhaps valuable educational programs aimed at ways to save or how to purchase a house. Some credit unions carry a reputation for their devotion to serving their members, while others for their spirit of cooperation in the community and among other cooperatives.

While I see no departure from such healthy diversity among credit unions, all of which, of course, results from the corporate or civic nature inherent in the membership segment served by the credit union and the management style of their executive team, I have to wonder if such diversity prohibits anyone from having a consistent experience of a national credit union brand, from one shop to another.

At first glance, it may appear not possible but if we look deeper we will discover that consistency is possible provided credit unions fully recognize and adhere to a value proposition that’s inherent in their nature and business model. It’s a value proposition that’s common and consistent to every shop regardless of the seg they serve. The value proposition I speak of is our cooperative principles.

I believe a national branding campaign for credit unions is possible and would be highly achievable if we based it on our cooperative principles. Emphasizing our not-for-profit status or even member ownership does not adequately approach the pervasive power of our distinct cooperative nature, defined as being,
- Democratically controlled by the members;
- Offering a return based on a member’s economic participation;
- Maintaining an autonomous and independent structure;
- Having voluntary and open membership;
- Providing education to members;
- Extending a hand of cooperation to other cooperatives; and,
- Demonstrating a genuine concern for the community.

Let’s face it; we all don’t have to be exemplary in how we practice these cooperative principles or measure our performance or allegiance to the movement by the depth of our adherence to them.

All I’m suggesting is that they will always remain the bedrock by which the very nature of credit unions are defined. While they may and should be hung publicly in our lunch rooms and board rooms, I believe they can also serve us very well as providing the framework for a national branding campaign.

So the next time there’s talk about a tagline for your credit union, consider one that other credit unions could use, one that offers consistency in message and values, and one that would certainly embrace our common cooperative value proposition.

My suggestion: “A Member of America’s Cooperative Family.”


  1. I love the "A Member of America's Cooperative Family" idea, but I truly don't think a national branding campaign will resonate until credit unions as a whole do a better job of embracing our structure and promise. There is too much inconsistency in our demonstration of those principles you mention. Many credit unions see these principles as mandates, while many see them as distracting or inconvenient. This is precisely why I have advocated the creation of a multi-party credit union system (another conversation for another day).

    As you mention in your post, advertising is a small piece of the branding process. We have a lot of work to do on the other aspects before we can even consider b2c communications.

  2. While I think it would be great if there was a way to have a national branding campaign, I just don't see it being possible. Why? As mentioned, credit unions today are just too diverse. Diverse in size, culture, and principles.

    That said, I think that something will happen within the next 2-3 years that could be comparable to a national branding campaign. But, it won't be the usual players that spearhead it (unless they broaden their thinking). Instead it will be a small group of credit union advocates that decide to do something about it and take an idea and run with it. And, it won't be a million dollar advertising campaign.

    There are several groups of people I know working on their ideas right now. And, hopefully more than one will work and get the word out about credit unions.

    I like the idea of "A Member of America's Cooperative Family".

    Question for others- does the concept of "cooperative" have a similar problem as "credit union" as far as understanding what it means? I know, in California, Wisconsin and farming communities, cooperatives are well understood. But, I'm not sure if most people are that familiar with cooperatives.

    Great post, Walt! I'm going to ponder this more tonight!

  3. Hi Walt,
    I love this idea. About 2 years ago, I posted a similar idea and got some good conversation here:

    Of course there are differences in the articulation of what each of us says, but it seems like at least you and I are in the same book, if not on the exact same page. You did a far better job summarizing, I think.

    Great post!

  4. Good post Walt. I hope it gets some real action going rather than more talk.

    As to you A Member of America’s Cooperative Family tagline, I think it's too vague. I understand you want it to be applicable for all but I don't think you can leave out some reference to financial services. Maybe something very simple like: An American Financial Services Cooperative.