Now, how will everyone know?

Both wittingly and unwittingly, credit unions have changed. If you’ve made it through the last few years, you are undoubtedly different than you were in, say, 2008. And though the changes haven’t all been unmitigated fun, the very fact of change is good. Change demonstrates your responsiveness to explosive times. It bonds you with your members, potential members and staff, who have undeniably gone through changes of their own. You’ve changed, but are those changes apparent at your credit union? Was your online interface designed during the early Reagan administration? Is it microscopic when viewed on a smartphone? Is your brand identity dated, confusing or just plain blah? Do your branches extend the right message: namely, that your credit union is welcoming, up-to-date and trustworthy? Can you articulate – in a way that members, your team and people who don’t even know you understand – why your credit union is the best choice in financial services for the people you serve? Change is inevitable. Capitalizing on that change to spark excitement and new loyalty? That requires its own effort. Here’s how to orchestrate a big (or even not-so-big) reveal. IDENTITY CRISIS Key question: Do we look like ourselves? It’s possible to transform so significantly or completely that you actually become a different organization. Evolve Federal Credit Union in El Paso, Texas, is an easy example of this: Their community charter enabled them to serve all local residents, but their name – El Paso Employees Credit Union – suggested they were for city employees only. If your name miscommunicates your mission, it’s time for a change. But an outdated name isn’t the only kind of identity mismatch that needs to be addressed. Over the past year or two, Evolve FCU recommitted itself to serving a younger, more tech-savvy membership. Though there was nothing strictly wrong with the look and feel of its old logo and identity, Evolve FCU wanted a visual brand that communicated its forward-looking philosophy. The clean, current look of its new logo won Evolve FCU a Diamond Award from the CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council. Just as important, it put a modern face on the credit union – one that goes with the modern thinking behind the brand. Is an image overhaul a good idea for everyone? “Certainly, the climate within the financial industry is primed for new ideas, but it’s difficult for me to say whether a strategy of ‘making change visible’ is a good idea or not,” says Jeffry Pilcher, Editor and Publisher of The Financial Brand (www.thefinancialbrand.com), a go-to site for leading-edge ideas on everything from rebranding to branch design. “If a credit union is capable of delivering change that’s substantive – not just cosmetic and gimmicky – then there is an opportunity. But they have to make sure they ‘walk the talk.’ Consumers are savvy enough to sense shallow, meaningless and bombastic promises. That’s perhaps one of the biggest risks a credit union faces when making a big deal out of something. If there isn’t any real meat behind it, everyone (members and employees alike) will just shrug it off.” How do you know you’re out of alignment?
  • Your strategy is progressive but your image is antique.
  • Your target demographic is young but your electronic presence is clunky.
  • The words you use to describe your brand – your name, your slogans, your mission and goals – don’t describe what you’re really about. (Extra points off if you would no longer want to live up to the description.)
  • A focus group participant at THINK 12 described his impression of a credit union branch as “seedy.” Unless you actually aspire to be “seedy,” this kind of comment signals a need for change.
TRANSPARENT CHANGES Key question: Is our slip showing? Sometimes it’s the invisible underpinnings that transform an organization or experience. Excellent example: Improving the look and functionality of your website may be less about visual pizazz and more about getting viewers the information they want without a fuss. “There’s a whole member experience that goes along with usability,” says Jason Powell, Design Director at credit union web design firm L9, based in Barre, Vt. “People crave so much visual change now; they want everything to be fresh. But visuals are only part of the experience when people visit your site. Functionality should be transparent to the consumer.” In many cases, this means choosing convention over creativity. In other words, if your members can’t find your branch locations or online mortgage application because you’ve “creatively” placed them under weird headings, you aren’t being clever. You’re frustrating people. Reviewing your electronic presence for usability may not win you a lot of recognition. In fact, if you’re doing your job correctly, your changes might be undetectable to the average user. But as more and more of your members interact with your credit union digitally, providing that “invisible” experience becomes increasingly important. Don’t forget, too, that your digital brand exists across many platforms. How does your site look on an iPad? A smartphone? “The buzzwords are ‘responsive design’ and ‘adaptive display,’” says Powell. “It’s all about making your content accessible on a variety of displays.” Members may not run screaming into your branch, demanding electron microscopy to view your site on their Android phones, but they will register their irritation – and associate it with your brand. “You want to give people a reason to interact with you,” says Powell. Having electronic access that is visually appealing and – more to the point – works flawlessly is an excellent place to start. GO ON, SAY IT Key question: Is anybody paying attention? On the opposite end of the spectrum is change that bears expression. Your new branches feature awesome, state-of-the-art ATMs! You now offer person-to-person payments! You’re hosting a drawing for a new iPhone 5! This is all great news. Now, how will everyone find out? Communicating with members, the public, even your staff can be trickier than ever. Fewer branch visits mean fewer opportunities to spread good news (and bad, for that matter). E-statements save money and paper, but also reduce your chances of reaching members by mail. If you shrank or eliminated your traditional ad budgets during the recent downturn, you’re probably reaching fewer people through those channels as well. What to do? Figuring out how to raise your visibility effectively remains one of the big questions for the current age, and it doesn’t appear that any one solution will do everything you need. For now, consider these ideas for getting the word out: Improve your web content. According to Javelin Research, roughly half of all attempts to open and fund new credit union accounts online fail. Fix broken functions and look for ways to present products, services and advice in interesting, searchable ways. Market on your ATMs. If you haven’t begun using CO-OP Visual Control, take advantage of available ATM screen time to get your message across. Work with your staff. “Having a bunch of marketing materials that brag about how new, innovative, dynamic or whatever you say your credit union is means nothing if the member experience doesn’t align,” says Pilcher. “That means you have to have employees on board. If you really want employees to engage and respond, you have to offer them incentives. Anything that isn’t measured and rewarded isn’t a top priority – employees know this.” Blast off with your advertising. Did you know high-impact, customizable ads are available to credit unions free of charge from CO-OP at www.creditunionsdo.org? Tell the world that your credit union “gets it” and is here to help – because if you don’t tell them, they’ll never know. Social media. Yeah, again. Evolve FCU CEO Ken Walters worried that embracing a new name and brand identity would mean giving up several decades worth of name recognition. But thanks to the brilliant Facebook and Twitter skills of Evolve FCU’s vice president of marketing, Tori Burton, Walters now believes, “More people know Evolve FCU than knew about El Paso Employees. If you find someone with a true talent for social media like Tori, it works.” Get out there. The other half of Burton’s recipe for success: Maintaining a high profile in the community. From film festivals to kite days, Evolve FCU goes out of its way to make its own news. (For more about Evolve FCU’s transformation, check out “Transformation Nation” starting on page 12.) Create your own channels. What if you launched your own YouTube channel? Or created an online financial literacy group for members? Or hosted a farmer’s market in your parking lot? Find new ways to connect with members in today’s more virtual reality. THE PACE OF CHANGE If you did everything suggested in this article right now, your job still wouldn’t be done. Not only has everything changed – everywhere, for everyone – but the pace of change has increased at an alarming rate. You used to think about change on a project by project basis. Now, you’re like the painters on the Golden Gate Bridge: When you’re done painting from one end of the bridge to the other, it’s time to start at the beginning again. Change is the new constant. Through it all, you also need to remember what’s essential about your credit union – the things that don’t change – and celebrate those as well. Honest, member-centric service may not look like it did yesterday, but it’s still the core identity of every credit union.