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Hype: Why Credit Unions Are Getting Eaten Alive

Matt DavisComment

One of the best things my mom taught me was a deep appreciation for a big event. Maybe it was her way of “socializing” a family raised in a remote area of Southern Indiana without cable television, I’m not sure. But make no mistake, her four children were raised to believe that it was our civic duty to tune in to every single sports championship, presidential speech, breaking news announcement, or cultural extravaganza, legitimate and otherwise.

Don’t care about horse racing? Who cares…it’s the Kentucky Derby. Never watched Cheers? But it’s the series finale! Hate ice skating? Suck it up, son. This is the Olympics!

Hype’s an interesting thing. If you don’t have enough of it, you don’t get an audience. Too much of it, and you lose credibility.

More often than not, these events were more sizzle than steak. Still, I’m thankful for the feeling of connectedness each generated. My mom even recorded Friday Night Videos every week so we could be halfway in-tune with the emerging popularity of MTV music videos. It’s ridiculous to think of it this way now, but my sense of social belonging seemed to improve with every Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and Madonna video I watched. That compulsion to consume popular culture events is hard to shake. Just last week I found myself watching Peter Pan Live, which did not appeal to me at all before, during, or after the broadcast.

There were serious examples, too. I remember watching the Challenger explode on live television. I remember the Berlin Wall’s destruction, the Rodney King Riots, and the death of Ryan White. I learned more than anyone wants to about the personal lives of Magic Johnson, Clarence Thomas, and O.J. Simpson. I watched with fear and disgust as I learned about Tiananmen Square, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, David Koresh, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Timothy McVeigh.

Amazingly, one of the events that stands out the most for me was a complete non-event. At the ripe old age of 7, I gathered around the television with my family to watch Geraldo Rivera crack open a, now infamous, secret vault of Al Capone. This was fascinating for me. I remember asking my parents tons of questions about the mafia. Does it still exist? Should I be scared? Where’s Alcatraz? What’s prohibition? But the most important question that I had was the same one that everyone of any age had: what’s in the vault?

After an hour, we found out the answer: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

...unless you count hype.

Hype’s an interesting thing. If you don’t have enough of it, you don’t get an audience. Too much of it, and you lose credibility. The Segway was an amazing invention, but it didn’t fundamentally change human transportation. Google Wave didn’t change the way humans connect socially, but it did lead to innovations that many of us enjoy today.

I’m a fan of hype. The Super Bowl wouldn’t have become the Super Bowl if the NFL hadn’t been dreaming big. Elon Musk wouldn’t have been able to create his own space program if he didn’t get a few people excited.

But that’s the thing with hype. If you actually believe that what you are creating or doing will have a huge impact, it’s perfectly OK to share your enthusiasm. Excitement is a core competency of any creator. It’s when the hype is rooted in deceit that it becomes a problem.

I don’t know if Geraldo knew what was (wasn’t?) in the tomb before the broadcast. But I’m pretty sure last week the Discovery Channel knew that Paul Rosolie was not going to actually be swallowed by a snake during its broadcast of “Eaten Alive.” An estimated 20 million viewers were duped into believing they would see something that simply wasn’t going to happen. Thankfully, I still don’t have cable television.


And hype is the general problem with today’s credit union system. We’ve over-hyped the threat of taxation, and under-hyped what we can do to help the most financially-precarious consumers in America. We’ve told audiences that they’ll experience an unparalleled level of care and intimacy, and often deliver something very different. We hype collaboration, yet do precious little of it.

There’s a lot that credit unions should hype. Our members love us. We offer a good place to work, and employ some of the genuinely nicest people on the planet. We offer a great deal for most consumers.

But let’s not get carried away.

What’s the big dream? What can we do that intrigues the public? What did you bake into your strategic plan that we can get people excited about?

It’s not compliance. It’s not a core conversion or a new, run-of-the-mill credit card program. It’s not a 0.50% APY certificate program. That type of thing will get the Eaten Alive treatment from your employees and members.

The big events in most of our personal lives don’t appear on national television. They happen when someone gets sick, gets promoted, finds the love of his life, gives birth to a bouncing baby boy, buries a parent, wrecks his car, or finds a dream job 400 miles away. These moments can’t be over-hyped. Unfortunately, they’re way too often dismissed as unrelated minutiae.

Members won’t remember you for the ten basis points you saved them on a car loan. They’ll remember you because you said yes to a loan when everyone else in town said no. They’ll remember you when you helped them fund their first startup. They’ll remember you because when that college acceptance letter was received it was done so with a sense of excitement, not financial worry.

We’ve under-hyped the things that matter, and underwhelmed people with our creativity. It’s not good enough. We need to be a movement of big events. We need to seem more connected to what people experience and need, instead of what financial markets and bureaucrats dictate.

The idea of credit unions that I fell in love with is battered, but not dead. But if we truly want people to start caring about what we do, we have to start doing things differently again. We haven’t had a big event since 1934.

It’s time.


Matt Davis is the founder of gameFI, President of 6th Story, and co-founder of CU Water Cooler. He's a leading thinker, writer, speaker, and creator in the credit union world. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two sons.