Bringing Humanity Back to Banking: How Credit Unions Are Doing it Right


It’s a startling statistic: Even though there are roughly the same number of credit unions branches as there are traditional bank ones, only 10 percent of overall U.S. dollars sit in credit unions. Why is that the case?

From the perspective of Jon Barnett, Director of the Financial Services Practice at Denver-based advertising agency, Cactus, which counts several credit unions as clients, he believes part of the problem is that credit union CMOs are often too often focused on selling credit unions as a generic category, rather than telling a particular credit union’s story in a way that connects with people within the community. “The typical ‘credit union good, big banks bad’ messaging only seems to be muddying the waters among all credit unions,” Barnett says.

Credit Union Business Magazine spoke to Jon Barnett about both the challenges and opportunities this particular moment in our culture represents for credit union CMOs, brand managers and marketing teams.

CUBM: Cactus has worked with a number of different credit unions to help to elevate their value in the financial world. What are your thoughts on how credit unions are providing value for their customers, especially in the wake of Covid-19?

JB: In the current moment of the Covid-19 pandemic and the United States’ worst financial crisis since 2008, credit unions are rising to the challenge with real actions to help their members. As many are experiencing financial distress during this time, credit unions are trying to ease this in very concrete ways, by offering low or zero percent interest loans and waived fees, for example. These actions aren’t remarkable or limited to the pandemic, these are things credit unions do all the time, but they stand in stark contrast to the way big banks have responded, or not responded, to customers in their time of need. For both small businesses and communities overall, these genuine efforts are the embodiment of why credit unions are so valuable.

CUBM: What lessons can you learn from big banks in terms of what credit unions should do and not do in terms of marketing?

JB: Right now, America’s institutional trust in big banks is at an all-time low. So theoretically, more Americans should be putting their hard-earned savings into credit unions, which are clearly much more focused on satisfying their members than their shareholders.

The problem is credit union CMOs are far too often focused on selling credit unions as a generic category, rather than telling their specific credit union’s story in a way that connects with people within the community. If the prevailing “slightly better than a bank” marketing strategy was working, more of our collective dollars would be in credit unions. It’s time to rethink everything, and Covid has given us the opportunity to do exactly that.

CUBM: Any examples from your own clients?

JB: One of our clients is Scott’s Credit Union in St. Louis. Our research showed how the people of St. Louis are sensitive to the fact that a lot of big manufacturing jobs and even their beloved sports teams (2 NFL teams to be exact) have left the city over the years. Super-regional banks in the area were another casualty. We embraced that local tension in Scott’s messaging, emphasizing how SCU has been in St. Louis for 80 years and that they’re with you and the city for the long haul. It resonated incredibly well.

CUBM: So how can today’s credit union differentiate themselves from big banks and further spotlight their story to show their value to their members?

JB: Big bank marketing is derivative and insincere, we all know that, but they excel at one thing in particular: developing apps and consumer experience technology that customers want. The opportunity for credit unions are twofold: One is to think beyond traditional brand marketing and more about meaningful brand actions, get granular in how your credit union integrates with the community; and two, innovate the customer experience and reimagine products and services that serve as an antidote to the things people hate about traditional banks.

That doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the banking app, but perhaps reimagining the app so it has more humanity in it. Perhaps it’s something as obvious as renaming “checking” accounts to something different that’s reflective of the fact that so few people actually write checks anymore? Maybe it’s a hyper-localized ad campaign where those in the community instantly feel a kinship? Or maybe it’s creating a banking app that combines traditional transactional services with unique ways for members to connect with each other? Or perhaps a social media campaign that spotlights community initiatives that need assistance and how members can donate their time or money to the cause?

The tactics may vary depending on your own credit union’s strengths and weaknesses, but what matters most is telling your brand’s story authentically and connecting it with real action that impacts the lives of the people in the communities you serve.

CUBM: We all know that big bank marketing efforts are derivative and insincere, but you mentioned that they excel at one thing especially: developing apps and customer experience technology. Where does that leave credit unions?

JB: While credit unions may not be able to outrun the big banks in terms of their technology, there’s potential to be “second but better.” What credit unions lack on the tech side they can make up for by engineering a sense of humanity back into the banking experience. I think the opportunities are endless for credit unions to stand out and differentiate themselves as the country faces one of the biggest economic crises in history.

CUBM: What tangible actions would you recommend credit unions take to show their commitment to their members during this time?

JB: There are a multitude of tactics credit unions can think about using, but the most important aspect is to tell your brand’s story in an authentic way and to connect it with the lives of the people in the community you serve. Credit unions are making the financial world a better place, fostering their communities in meaningful ways, and helping members thrive in their lives. Whether CU brands actually get credit for that, and deposits grow accordingly, is entirely up to the marketers stewarding those brands.

Account Director, Jon Barnett, brings to Cactus a keen ability to see around corners. By placing a priority on being an attentive, active listener, Jon proactively helps clients solve complex business problems with simple, creative solutions. He’s worked on a variety of national and international financial brands including CommunityAmerica Credit Union, Scott Credit Union, and Umpqua Bank, and he now serves as the Financial Services Lead.

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