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CUNA GAC: "Credit Union," A National Bland?

Tim McAlpineComment

Have you ever asked a young person outside of the credit union movement bubble what a credit union is? If you have, then you know that this question will be answered in one of four ways.

  1. With a blank stare
  2. With a blunt, "No" 
  3. With a feeble attempt to piece together an answer based on the respondent's basic  understanding of the two separate words "credit" and "union"
  4. With a questioning, "Like a bank, right?"

I am not overstating or exaggerating here. We've asked dozens of our Young & Free Spokester finalists to do just this. What we had really hoped to surface over time was a general understanding of what a credit union is and, ideally, a basic understanding of how a credit union is a better choice for young adults. 

Here is a good example of one of these videos. It was created by the 2008 Young & Free Texas Spokester, DeAndre Upshaw.

We actually stopped requesting these videos on this exact topic about a year ago. The resulting videos were getting painful to watch and, more importantly, way more painful for our finalists to put together.

If you do find a young person that can actually articulate what a credit union is, poke a little deeper and you'll find that their parents are strong credit union advocates or they have a friend or family member who works for a credit union. I can pretty much guarantee that a peer did not tell them about it.

"According to the CUNA 2011-2012 Survey of Potential Members, 69% of consumers ages 18 to 24 are “not at all familiar” with credit unions."

This is not just anecdotal either. According to the CUNA 2011-2012 Survey of Potential Members, 69% of consumers ages 18 to 24 are “not at all familiar” with credit unions. 

So, when the discussion of a national credit union brand campaign comes up, which it so often does, I always have this unspoken thought bubble floating above my head. If someone has a vague notion of what a credit union is, they would associate the brand with bland.

Credit unions are great and stand for all the right things. They're just not Nike or Apple or even America Express or Square for that matter. For numerous reasons, the century old credit union brand is just not on the radar like other heavily marketed and totally unified consumer brands.

So, with this backdrop in mind, I was equally excited and nervous to see CUNA's President and CEO, Bill Cheney's opening presentation at the Government Affairs Conference in Washington, DC, since I had heard that there might be a national brand campaign debut.

A vision articulated

Bill's presentation was top drawer. He talked about how we need to weave the credit union story into the cultural shift and demonstrate that credit unions answer what people want their primary financial partner to stand for while at the same time we need to present a story that lawmakers want to be associated with.

Bill outlined a shared agenda with an aim to unite the credit union movement in the United States. Top priorities are to remove barriers, build awareness and foster service excellence. 

To drill down further, Bill talked about removing barriers by confronting the obstacles that stand in our way and also about the need to enhance the credit union charter. We also need to increase awareness of credit union values while, at the same time, concentrate on attracting, retaining and developing younger, diverse leaders, employees and members. Cheney presented positive stats around and Bank Transfer Day to show the progress that has been made of late. He contended that, "Service excellence will be achieved by providing services that are forward moving and constantly improving."

"Proof of success will be 50 million Americans that call a credit union their primary financial institution by 2023."

I like that CUNA has established a very specific definition of success. Proof of success will be 50 million Americans that call a credit union their primary financial institution (PFI) by 2023. Today, U.S. credit unions have 40 million PFI members and it took 100 years to get to that number. 

The goal for total member value is even more aggressive. Success will be achieved if total member value increases from $8 billion to $20 billion in the next decade.


The theme is Unite For Good and CUNA has launched a simple industry focused website to highlight the talking points. There's a powerful video on the site that you should watch to get the gist of things. Unfortunately, it's a private Vimeo video that I can't embed here.

My gentle critique

Since CUNA "strongly encourages thoughts, feedback and suggestions," I'll give my impressions from the "Foreign Correspondent." 

It's a solid platform and strategy and it's the first time that I've seen a cohesive vision for the U.S. credit union movement. After seeing the presentation, watching the video and digging deeper into the website information, I was left with a few questions. 

  1. Is this a national brand or an internal vision?
  2. Are the leagues supposed to run with this or continue with their own initiatives?
  3. Is this language and symbolism that credit unions should adopt or simply know about?
  4. What's the call to action? For leagues? For credit unions? For members? And, most importantly, what do we want the unwashed masses to do?

I believe it's a vision and not a brand per se. My confusion or questions stem from the fact that it appears to be a partially built out campaign. Like a mood board or comp. I really like the Unite For Good message. It is strong and well thought out and could resonate if it was backed by a unified national media plan and marketing strategy. This could move the "credit union" brand forward and CUNA is certainly in a position to lead the charge.

In ten years, I'd love to see a young person attempt to film a video like the one above and have most of the subjects know exactly what a credit union is and why it matters. That would be a success by any measure.

I know everyone is an armchair branding expert. What do you think? Does "Unite For Good" have the potential of ratcheting up the "credit union" brand above bland?


Tim McAlpine lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. He is the President and Creative Director of Currency Marketing, an integrated marketing agency specializing in helping credit unions attract the next generation of members. Tim is best known as the creator of Young & Free.