Can credit unions really cultivate cult status?

In the past year, credit unions have been looking for more: more members, more attention, more reach. But what if we’re looking into the wrong end of the telescope? What if the best future for credit unions lies in looking inward? Can credit unions go beyond providing commodity products and services – and even beyond the “friend zone” of member satisfaction – all the way to cult status?

It’s not as far-flung as it might seem. While they may lack the geeky luster of Apple computers or the glam of Virgin airlines, credit unions do possess many of the attributes that go into creating a cult brand. With a little deliberate action – and a plug-your-nose, close-your-eyes, jump-in approach to winning members’ hearts – credit unions might find themselves faced with their own brand of cult following.


Cult brands are like art: You know them when you see them. A cult brand is not the same thing as a successful brand. Example: Microsoft is a very successful brand. We all know what it stands for. Most of us have used Microsoft products in our lifetimes, generally with positive results. Do we like Microsoft? Most of us do.

Now compare Microsoft to Apple. People don’t merely love their iPods, iPhones and iPads – they lurve them. Are Mac users superior to PC users? They certainly think so. People flock to Apple retail stores “just to see” what’s new and consult unironically with “geniuses.” Let’s be honest: No one is accusing the retail help at any other store of being ingenious.

According to cult branding expert BJ Bueno, founder of The Cult Branding Company in Florida, cult brands share three common traits: trust, belief and affinity. It should be noted that cult brands may also enjoy awareness, positive association, strong image and other attributes of good branding. What sets them apart, though, is their power to bring people together under a common, beloved identity.

People like Toyota Camry, but they love Toyota Prius. They like Taco Bell, but – especially if they’re into the pure food movement – they love Chipotle. Folks like reliable, inoffensive, middle-of-the-road big brands. But they love a brand that makes them feel like they belong to something genuinely awesome. (For more about the components of a cult brand, see the sidebar “7 Rules of Cult Branding.”)


Here’s how you know you might have a problem. You’ve downloaded a dedicated iPhone app so you can track – the instant it goes live – what’s on the block at Gilt Groupe’s David Lerner sale. You’ve done this even though you know you shouldn’t spend on the black tank dress, even at the discounted price of $49 (marked down from $220!) and, frankly, aren’t entirely sure who David Lerner is. While there, you price out waterfront rooms at the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle. Cheap. Cheap! You can’t afford not to go. Wondering what you’ll find under the heading “Gilt City”? Of course you are.

In case this scenario doesn’t ring familiar, such are the actions of a typical Gilt Groupe devotee. Gilt is an online retailer that offers exclusive goods and services at deeply discounted prices. Individual sales last a fleeting 36 hours, but the best stuff is always snatched up in a hot hurry. Hence the iPhone stalking, which can become compulsive.

Gilt’s cofounders Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson can relate. The partners were classmates at Harvard and shopped New York City’s sample sales together before joining Gilt CEO Kevin Ryan in their addictive venture in 2007. Since then, Gilt has sold more than half a billion dollars worth of luxury goods. More to the point, it’s become a guilty pleasure for shoppers worldwide.

“We knew we were the target market for this site,” says Maybank. “And, having been to sample sales in New York, we knew the experience we were trying to recreate.” Obviously, shopping online isn’t the same as shopping a sample sale in person. The Gilt team focuses on key aspects:

The insider angle. Only a lucky few get insider deals. “The idea is to offer things that aren’t for everyone, but are something just for you,” says Maybank.

Luxury dipped in gold. The name says it all – but the feeling doesn’t stop there. “We take all manifestations of our brand seriously, from our packaging materials to our site aesthetics, down to our business cards,” says Maybank. “We want our site to be visually dramatic and to give the feeling of being aspirational, even transformational.” Items aren’t displayed flat or on mannequins: They’re shot on real models. “The sense is intimate. It’s designed to create an emotional response.”

Being buzzworthy. Everyone loves a deal. But just to make sure they don’t keep their good fortune to themselves, Gilt encourages customers to spread the word. “We incentivize people to share their experiences,” says Maybank. “Their enthusiasm helps reaffirm the brand.”

As Gilt continues to expand globally, the challenge becomes less about creating demand than it is about meeting it. “The momentum is there,” says Maybank. “Now, we’re focusing in on our culture, on planning and setting goals. We’re much more grounded in processes than we used to be, but nearly five years into the business we are keeping up with growth. And we’re happy to have growth to contend with.”


Selling spectacular goods at steep discounts is not the same thing as marketing a credit union, we agree. Yet, there are definite parallels between the two propositions.

For example, Maybank is a stickler for customer experience. “From the moment a customer finds our site through the shopping experience and order placement, all the way until the moment the box arrives at the doorstep – we are creating a constant and considered response,” she says. “Having that relentless focus at every step is what helps to create a strong brand.”

Brian Wringer, wordsmith and marketing strategist for Indianapolis-based credit union marketing and advertising firm iDiz, backs up a step. He agrees that credit unions can reinforce their branding with a coherent member experience. But he also urges credit unions to hone in on what differentiates them from the competition – not just in terms of products or services or location, but emotionally.

“The biggest advantage credit unions have is that they’re human,” says Wringer. Leveraging that human connection isn’t a matter of appealing to all humans. The key is finding the specific commonality that brings the credit union and its members together: “When we talk to credit union clients, it’s almost upsetting to them to hear that they’re not for everybody, but they’re not. Credit unions are for people who are paying a little more attention. Within that group, you may have people who share a community or a field of employment.” If that suggests a common bond, celebrate it.

Get in touch with the soul of your brand. Wringer and his team sit down with credit union staff and ask when they really lived the brand – and, off the official record, when they might have bent the rules to help a member. “Those are the stories that help people understand what makes their credit union different,” says Wringer. If you need inspiration (or a leg up with this effort), check out the video clips on the site for a new credit union marketing campaign, They’ll help you remember why people love – not like – their credit unions.

Check the consistency of your message. “If you say you make things simple, don’t have 15 checking account products for members to sift through,” says Wringer. “Or, maybe the message is this: Financial products aren’t simple, but we simplify the process with very personal service.”

Speak directly to people. Breaking through the sameness and finding ways to connect authentically is a huge challenge. Need a new idea? Check out Wag ( The site is part of a project called “Tribed, Banking Experiences for Niched Communities.” Wag features articles about personal finance for dog lovers. It’s probably not the solution to every credit union’s branding dilemma, but it illustrates an important point. It’s better to offer a genuine connection to some members than to offer a ho-hum point of contact to all.

Be loud and proud. If you’ve ever caught yourself trying to be unobtrusive, or toning down a message that seemed too boastful, or admonishing yourself to be humble, cut it out. If you want to become a meaningful brand for your members – one they trust, believe in and want to align themselves with – you’re going to have to say it like you mean it. Stop trying to be a brand that people don’t hate and start being one they are ready to love.


Is it realistic for credit unions to elevate themselves to cult status? There is certainly an argument against. Read Brett King’s insights on the commoditization of financial services (“THINK Out Loud” on page 6) and you might wonder how branding fits into the new digital world. At the same time, branding – and the human connection it represents – may be more important than ever. Without it, how does any financial institution differentiate itself from its competition?

Moreover, it may not be a lack of membership – but rather a lack of participation – that challenges credit unions. Even where membership growth is an objective, shoring up member relationships is surely just as important. Members without engagement won’t carry this movement into the future.

More than 90 million Americans are credit union members right now. That’s 90 million opportunities to build relationships, affirm common values and create community. If you don’t think credit unions have the capacity to make this happen, you aren’t thinking hard enough. Who better to restore trust, belief and affinity to financial services than this industry?

“Credit unions bring a humanity to what they do that is absolutely real,” says Wringer. “They can honestly say, ‘We are you. You are us.’” That’s a brand message to build upon.