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Credit Unions Dropping ‘Credit Union’ From Their Names

A reader of The Financial Brand recently asked, “Is there any credit union that does not use ‘Credit Union’ in the logo?”

The answer is yes. It’s an increasingly common trend as more and more credit unions realize that most Americans don’t know what “credit unions” are, and struggle to decipher the term. “Is it something to do with money and organized labor?”

This is something Sarah Snell Cooke, Editor of the Credit Union Times, noted in an editorial she wrote about the challenges the “credit union” surname presents. “What does ‘credit union’ mean?” she asks. “Other than those in the industry, polls have shown time and again, very few have any clue. Yet, the basic idea of a bank is understood by anyone over the age of six.”

“Drop the ‘credit union’ from your marketing,” she implores. She goes further and recommends dumping terms like “members” and “join” too. It’s surprisingly frank talk coming from someone as influential as Snell Cooke. Twenty years ago, such talk would be heresy and she could have even lost her job over the uproar.

It’s quite common in Canada for credit unions to drop “credit union” from their names. Two of the country’s largest (both located in Vancouver, B.C.) have done it. Vancity Credit Union is just simply “Vancity,” and Coast Capital goes by “Coast Capital Savings.”



CANADIANS COMMONLY DROP “CREDIT UNION”

Tim McAlpine, President of Currency Marketing, a credit union branding firm, says the move away from “credit union” has worked in British Columbia, Canada, arguably the most successful and competitive credit union market in the world. “The three largest credit unions in B.C. — Vancity with $14B, Coast Capital Savings with $13B and Envision Financial with $6B — plus a half-dozen others don’t use the term ‘credit union’ in any of their signage, advertising, marketing, websites, etc. Nothing other than fine print on documents,” McAlpine observes.

“Half of all residents call a credit union their primary financial institution,” McAlpine says. “Ironically, it is commonplace to not include credit union in the financial institution’s brand name.”

Kiosk & Display | 2014 NEFMA Spring Conference

In the U.S., more and more credit unions are replacing “Credit Union” with “Financial” (or at least drastically downplaying “credit union” in their logos):


Federally chartered credit unions have a few more options (something The Financial Brand wrote about earlier). Here’s some of the ways in which they are dropping “Credit Union” from their names:


FEDERAL CREDIT UNIONS DROPPING “CREDIT UNION”

“Federal Credit Union” is a mouthful, yet another reason FCUs might think about dumping the phrase. Some ditch the entire thing, while others shorten down to just “Federal” or “Fed.” Interestingly, Bethpage uses a .org web address (www.bethpage.org) that redirects to a .coop site (www.bethpage.coop). USA Fed uses a .org address. Whether or not these credit unions feel some attachment to their roots, it might raise questions for some consumers: “What’s up with the .coop thing?”

There is at least one credit union marketing itself simply as “Citadel,” using the tagline, “Banking with one focus. You.” However, they have “fcu” in their web address, and also use a .org domain. It seems odd that they would take such great pains to distance themselves from their “credit union” status only to use a URL — www.citadelfcu.org — that feels markedly “credit union.”

Credit union names have been evolving over the last few years, although feelings about them haven’t softened as much as one might expect. There are plenty of credit union insiders who feel strongly that it’s a big mistake to create any distance with “the movement.” The editorial in the Credit Union Times sparked a fiery debate, with both sides hotly contested:

  • “If no one understands the meaning of the terms, why be insistent in their continued use?”
  • “The credit union name is confusing, but it is what it is and we should be proud of it and wave the flag high.”
  • “Credit unions have to face the reality: no one knows what a credit union is. If the term is meaningless to those you’re advertising to, and you tell them you have to join us first, you’re already behind.”
  • “I agree with banishing the term “join a credit union”-it is misleading to the public.”
  • “If you’re spending a lot of effort trying to explain a credit union you’ve reduced the resources you can focus upon enhancing member relationships or attracting new members.”
  • “It’s all about separating the credit unions from the bank. The general public really sees no difference between the two and both banks and credit unions get lumped in together.”
  • “Not using the term “credit union” doesn’t mean you aren’t one.”
  • “The more credit unions do to compete with banks by trying to look like, sound like and operate like banks the more they become like banks.”
Kiosk & Display | 2014 NEFMA Spring Conference

Bottom Line: Most of America (1) doesn’t know what credit unions are, (2) doesn’t know they can “join” a credit union, and/or (3) doesn’t regard credit unions as a serious alternative for financial services. One research study after another has proven this time and time again. Until the credit union movement comes to terms with reality and accepts the situation, nothing will change and this debate will rage on.

The choice is simple, either the industry can (1) make people aware of “credit unions” and what the term means, (2) find another term to replace “credit union” (like “Financial Co-op” or “Cooperative Bank”), or (3) keep moaning about how sad it is that know one knows about “credit unions.”

As Trey Reeme, , said back in 2008, “If after 100 years people still don’t know what “credit union” means, it’s probably time to change it.”

Make that 102 years now.

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Comments

  1. Your bottom line is right on point, Jeffry. Many credit union executives, staffers, soothsayers and philosophical oracles need to face their new reality. Why do credit unions feel the need to bear this albatross. That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I’m mixing my literary allusions, but you get the point. Bull’s-eye!

  2. I agree with Sarah and Trey. From a consumer perspective, many people don’t understand credit unions. Rather than waiting for some kind of national credit union campaign to change perceptions (which could be wishful thinking, especially given Trey’s 100 years comment), it’s encouraging to see institutions – like some included as examples above – who recognize the limitations of using ‘credit union’ and have made significant changes to reposition their brands. I see far more opportunity in making this change than in relying on the bank vs. credit union argument (which in my mind, doesn’t get anyone very far) as means to connect with consumers.

  3. I agree with the author and many of the new brands are excellent. Unfortunately, some credit unions have not done their homework when changing their institutuion names and we have some really silly names and logos out there, which does nothing to further the credibility of the industry.

  4. While discussing your article with a co-worker, he pointed out that it’s quite natural for consumers to drop “Bank” from the name when discussing.

    For example, it’s far more common for me to hear someone refer to “Fifth Third” in conversation than “Fifth Third Bank.” The same is true of “National City” and “Wells Fargo.”

    Consider also the URLs of http://www.53.com, http://www.nationalcity.com, http://www.wellsfargo.com and http://www.pnc.com. None of them use the word bank in their URLs.

    But an overwhelming majority of credit unions that I’ve worked with or even know of use “cu” or “fcu” in their URLs.

    Sarah Cooke made a good point in an article not too long ago where she said no one says, “I’ve got some credit unioning to do” (or something to that effect). It seems like a lot of energy and money is wasted trying to change a social norm for now apparent reason.

    Trying to establish a credit union specific vernacular for what most Americans know as “banking” feels a lot like trying to convert people to call store brand Kleenex “facial tissue.” I’d be willing to bet that most people know it as Kleenex and know what you’re asking for when you request a Kleenex. Unless there is a significant difference between facial tissue and a Kleenex, then I think I’d encounter less frustration just asking for a Kleenex when I need one than to take a chance on getting a puzzled look when I ask for a facial tissue.

  5. Jason, that’s an excellent observation about how banks drop “Bank” from their name in marketing.

    Many credit unions have to add “cu” or “fcu” to their URLs because when they change names, they pick something so commonly used that all the desirable web address are already taken.

  6. Jason, I appreciate you bringing up the point about some pushing for the use of ‘credit unioning’ as a replacement for the verb ‘banking’, as I think it’s ridiculous. It’s refreshing to see that some credit unions are willing to let go of the words ‘credit union’, as opposed to relentlessly holding onto them. An important (if not the most important) role of a company’s marketing personnel/department is to allow consumers to easily see the value of their company’s products and services. And sometimes it’s something as seemingly inconsequential as a name that prevents consumers from seeing that value.

  7. This is all just semantics.

    So you drop the word credit union from your name. And then people say “What’s Bethpage?” A golf course? Nope, we’re a credit union. Oh, what’s that?

    And we’re back……..

  8. Denise, what if the name was Bethpage Financial? Then fewer people would need to ask.

    And what if, when someone did ask the question “What’s Bethpage Financial?” the answer was, it’s a place to do your banking?

  9. MZ,

    That’s true – the financial clearly says I’m not a credit union. Cuz that would be confusing. So what is a financial? A bank? A finance company? A new category? Is it insured?

  10. I don’t agree that it means, “I’m not a credit union.” Isn’t a credit union a type of financial institution?

    As pointed out above, some banks have dropped the word “banks” from their marketing names. Does that make them not banks?

    For those in favor of dropping the prominent “credit union” moniker, the point is to move the discussion with consumers beyond, “What kind of financial animal are you exactly?” Because that’s a distinction that many banks and credit unions like to make, but there is no meaningful distinction for the vast majority of consumers.

    The argument is that having “credit union” in the name, calling attention to the fact that you are some very specific kind of financial institution, alienates that large group of people who don’t know what a credit union really is. It creates a barrier to attracting more customers. That makes it about more than semantics. That makes it about real business impact.

    Some banks use “financial” in their names too. MB Financial is an example. No bank, just financial. Some banks make this switch to “financial” because they think the word “bank” is limiting. They believe that consumers think of savings and checking accounts when they hear “bank,” and they want to convey the idea they are more than that, they have insurance too, and maybe investment products. Some credit unions might feel the same way, that the broader term “financial” does a better job of conveying the full breadth of the products they offer. I think there is some validity in that point of view.

  11. I see the value in dropping “credit union” from logos. From a branding perspective, it is no different than what banks have done as Jason mentioned. The same thing has happened with grocery stores and other businesses. People using the business know the purpose. And, the advertising should be clear enough to the consumer to know what is being sold or advertised without stating the “type” of store or business.

    I don’t like the trend of using “financial” or “savings” to replace credit union. “Financial” to me refers to a Finance Company and I would never go to one for a loan. And, “Savings” refers to Savings Bank or Thrift. Now, that may be something unique to Illinois where I live. I’m not sure if in other places it would be interpreted that way or not.

    It is a delicate balance to downplay or eliminate the “credit union” while retaining the uniqueness of a credit union. The question becomes not whether credit unions are doing it or not, but which credit unions are able to make the name adjustments while retaining the credit union difference in their organization.

  12. MZ’s second comment cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that so many credit union marketing messages put too much emphasis on the type of institution, which is meaningless to the average consumer, rather than on the product benefits – what consumers really care about.

    Removing the focus from the institution type allows marketers to shift emphasis onto the relevant details – the products. For example, consider these two statements:

    “Because we’re a member owned financial institution, membership at ABC Credit Union means lower interest rates on car loans.”

    versus

    “ABC Credit Union’s car loan rates are one percent lower than our competitors.”

    Which of the factors in the first statement calls an average consumer to action? I’ll argue that it’s the product discount alone, with little regard for the membership or ownership attachment. Excluding the membership mention in the sentence does not make the offer any less compelling, nor does including it make it more compelling.

    But what if the interest rate isn’t actually lower than competitors’ rates? Or what if the products themselves aren’t any different? Then what is an institution to focus on in its marketing? It seems that institution type then becomes the default message.

    (Another option is to denigrate other types of financial institutions, as discussed at http://www.inetsolution.com/turnleft/post/Bashing-Banks-Is-this-A-Smart-Strategy-for-Credit-Unions.aspx)

    Credit unions should focus on making their products & services the center of their marketing and self-improvement efforts. If you have the best products at the lowest cost, it doesn’t really matter what words are in your name because low cost and high convenience are two words that financial consumers understand clearly.

    Credit unions do provide valuable products and services that consumers need. If I understand Sarah Cooke correctly, her core message is this: talk to consumers in their native language. You’re wasting energy speaking Mandarin to an Italian.

  13. If Sarah Cooke’s core message was to “talk to consumers in their native language” then I would argue for the credit union name – again.

    I am surprised at the lack of defense for the credit union moniker in a time when we are given one last chance to truly separate ourselves from the banking world. When we can play up the fact that if you see “credit union” in the name you can count on these things:

    1. In 100 years of business we have NEVER used taxpayer money to bail us out.
    2. Credit unions don’t fail – they take care of one another through merger.
    3. Your money is insured up to $250,000 and our insurance fund, unlike FDIC, is still in good shape.
    4. Credit union credit card programs don’t punish members. See Ondine Irving’s site and all the press she’s gotten on Suzie Orman, Oprah, CNBC, etc. She urges people to go to the category that is called “credit union”
    5. The “Move Your Money” initiative, which again has gotten amazing press coverage, urges people to move to a local community bank or a credit union.

    To be fair – not everyone cares about those difference – but most of the advice here feels like “it’s smarter to try and be all things to all people and be as generic as possible pushing me-too products so we don’t confuse the lowest common denominator.”

    I thought marketing was about differentiation. Not seeking to be the same.

    I said it on Twitter and I’ll say it again – If you don’t want to be a credit union, convert. Go be a bank. Then there’s no confusion whatsoever.

  14. Nick Groulx says:

    I like the idea of dropping “credit union” and replacing it with “financial”. However, in this economy aren’t people specifically looking for a “credit union”?

    While many consumers don’t know what a credit union is, many of them do…. and they specifically seek out a credit union for lower rates on loans, less fees, etc. In fact, Suze Orman is a huge advocate of credit unions and touts “joining” one on her show regularly.

    It would be interesting to know statistics on the percentage of people that don’t know what a credit union is vs. those that look for those two special words, “credit union”.

  15. Add me to the list of the defenders of the term “credit union”. Yes, it’s awkward and it’s not even very accurate — I have no idea why the term “cooperative” didn’t catch on 100 years ago. The word “Union” has an even stronger negative/political connotation in Spanish, so the term in Spanish is indeed “Cooperativo”.

    But forget all that — it’s a DIFFERENCE — and differentiation is pure marketing plutonium.

    There’s enormous pressure to let banks define what CUs can and can’t do — it’s soooooooooo much easier in every way, from marketing to software and compliance — and so many people advocate giving in to that pressure completely. “Let’s just do and look and feel exactly like a bank, except I guess we’ll try to do it a wee bit better or cheaper, grab what crumbs we can, and trust people to do the research and make the logical choice…”

    Or look at it this way: credit unions aren’t for everyone, and maybe more CU marketers need to get comfortable with that fact. CUs are for people who care about the ethics and behavior of their financial institution, and are willing to . Lots of people don’t give a hoot and never will — they just start driving and dump off their money at the first bank-like object they pass. So why dumb things down?

    I also note that most examples of a successful move away from the C and U words are already dominant in their markets. Unless you’re enough of a force to displace and become “the generic brand” in your market, imitating this move may not be a good idea. In other words, sure, I can see that there are certain specific situations where it might make sense. But it’s the difference between being a beloved specialty brand and one of the very few CUs with the clout to replace “Kleenex” in your market. And even in these cases, the move had better be subtle enough to avoid throwing out existing brand equity.

  16. It’s ridiculous to suggest that a company has to include its category in its name. That would mean Nike would be “Nike Shoes & Athletic Gear.” Old Navy would be “Old Navy Clothing Company.” Amazon would be “Amazon Online Store.” People understand Ford is a car company and Starbucks is a cafe because those organizations have invested serious time, energy and money into building their brands and giving their names meaning.

  17. Great points MZ. Thanks for the comment.

  18. @Denise: I hear what you’re saying and appreciate your comments. Regarding point #1, I’ve just had a hard time getting comfortable with encouraging my credit union clients to play the bailout card. It just feels a bit awkward for organizations that do not pay income taxes to lambaste organizations that do for borrowing taxpayer money that the government was eagerly offering. It’s even more awkward given that the credit union industry did indeed take part in a bailout in 2009, as discussed here http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123318420520726249.html

    As I mentioned in my blog post about credit union bank bashing (referenced earlier), trying to build one’s self up by attacking others rarely has positive net results and often builds a glass house around the attacker.

    If the FDIC is on the verge of drying up and endangering consumer deposits, then I think point #3 would definitely be a good marketing angle for credit unions. Offering substantially greater security of the assets they hold for members would be a home run for credit unions. Fear has certainly earned its place in the marketing hall of fame as a motivator.

    I do like where you started to go with point #5 in your comments. Fewer or lower punitive fees is a positive selling point that can differentiate one financial institution from another. For people prone to incur these types of fees, that type of benefit would appeal to them. (On a side note, I think Ally Bank has set the bar for banks with their $9.00 per day overdraft fee, regardless of how many overdrafts occur that day.)

    I can get behind point #6 as well since “Move Your Money” is an emotional appeal that will attract consumers who vote their principles with their wallets. But even for consumers who do switch on the basis of an emotional appeal, the credit unions still must offer value to these consumers once they get them, or the relationship will be short lived. Even principled consumers still expect value.

    @Brian: You make an extremely valid point about differentiation. I’ve worked with quite a few credit unions (and banks, too) who have managed to do this individually and have been quite successful. But I attribute their success to individual efforts within that organization rather than by binding themselves to an industry mantra.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that every financial institution should try to differentiate itself, if possible. Of course, it’s also ok though to just be one of those bank-like objects where people drop their money off — there’s a lot of room in the financial services market for those players, too.

    @Everyone: Fantastic civil discussions occurring here. It’s true, people who work with credit unions are nice people. :)

  19. @Jeffry – to use your category argument, the credit union’s would be financial services. So, yes – it would be ridiculous to say OnPoint Credit Union Financial Services. Credit Union is our brand.

    @Jason – thanks for saying we’re nice people! That was very “credit union – nice” of you!
    Say – when I clicked on the link to your WSJ article I could see the comments, but the article tab took me to adverts only. Am I being punished because I’m a MAC user? Would love to read it.

  20. The more a CU acts like or delivers a bank message, the more it disavows its very advantage.

  21. Great to see that CU’s all over the world struggle with the same issues. I’m the Marketing Manager at Orange Credit Union in Orange, Australia. We are currently going through a massive re-positioning of our 45 year old credit union. We decided to keep the ‘credit union’ in our name, as our name is also the name of our city. Other CU’s here have dropped CU in favour of ‘member banking’. As for differentiation, we struggled to come up with points of difference, not really wanting to bring it back to mutuality–but really, that is how we are different from the banks. I know it is not the selling point that people will crawl over broken glass to have; however, everyone has good rates, pricing and customer (member) service–”what else do you have?’. Credit Union’s have the real, personal, individual member service that other financial institutions don’t have the time or resources or POLICY to allow such individual concern. Take a number mentality doesn’t work in credit union land–or not at least in our view of the world.

    Glad to see we are all connected in credit union land–if I ever move back to the States.

  22. Noelle, thanks for your comment and sharing your experience and insights.

  23. I’m a Canadian living in Ireland for the past 9 years. I have noticed that the ethos of credit
    unions over here is much more consistent with the credit union movement than in North America. They offer a variety of different loan products with flexible lending terms – far more accommodating than the credit unions back home e.g. securing a fraction of the amount of the loan in a shares account with a view to offering a loan multiple times that amount.
    At my local credit union in Ireland – every member gets a vote at AGMs and certain policy development meetings.

    What is most concerning about credit unions in Canada and the US is they function too much like banks and not enough like credit unions. – If you look at a variety of web sites e.g. Northern Credit Union in Sault Ste. Marie Ont. – they talk a good line about being local and providing friendly, personal service – but if you’re a little guy who needs a loan there are only traditional bank style options. – and not a credit union logo in sight.

    It’s getting to the point with Canadian credit unions that their new slogan should be -

    ” All of the hassels of the big banks without the conveniences!”

  24. Following the trend, Starnews Credit Union is now known as Luminus Financial, as of June 1.

    https://www.luminusfinancial.com

  25. Thanks for the tip Jason. That one will be added to the next name change wrap-up.

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