The story behind a once frumpy and listless credit union, and how they became one of the most innovative premium boutique financial brands in North America.
Back in 2003, Vancouver-based North Shore Credit Union was a Canadian financial institution that “had lost its way,” according to President and CEO Chris Catliff. “We had no differentiated brand, and the credit union was floundering.”
The 72-year old institution was formed during the area’s shipbuilding boom back in World War II, and later shifted to support a deep-sea fishing trade. By the time Catliff took the helm of North Shore, both industries had declined drastically.
But over the years, the area had morphed from its working-class maritime beginnings into one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Canada. Yet the credit union, squarely in the middle of this budding upscale opportunity, was unable to capture the affluent residents who lived and worked there. There was a brand mismatch.
“We were little more than a paper-based savings and loan,” CEO Catliff explains. “People said we were nice and friendly, but not expert or professional.”
And you can’t win with an upscale market when you aren’t perceived as professional.
The image of North Shore Credit Union prior to 2000 was that of a traditional, community-oriented credit union.
Fast-forward to 2013. Step into a North Shore branch now and you’ll find an elegant design that deliberately evokes the feeling of a West Coast spa. The experience has clearly been meticulously engineered, and it’s easy to see that every detail matters. Ten years ago, the credit union’s image was the polar opposite of the affluent and distinctive brand it has today.
In September, the credit union implemented one of the final phases of its brand evolution, launching a new name and identity, BlueShore Financial, along with a new promise to help members “Be Richly Valued.”
Brand Transformation Wasn’t Easy
When Catliff came aboard in late 2000, he knew the credit union had to somehow differentiate itself within the highly competitive Canadian financial industry. But he also knew that change of this magnitude wouldn’t come easily, nor would success be swift. Every aspect of the organization would need to be retooled to appeal to a more affluent audience. And that takes time…
So nearly a decade ago, the organization embarked on this massive, enterprise-wide undertaking — a brand strategy driven by Catliff’s vision to transform the credit union into the financial provider of choice for a flourishing market.
In 2004, Catliff engaged Weber Marketing Group, a strategic brand consultancy in Seattle, to help guide the organization through its brand transformation. The project would also involve a new branch prototype design process, spearheaded by EHS Design, a design firm specializing in financial architectural strategies.
Mark Weber, President and CEO of Weber Marketing Group, said the credit union’s dilemma was obvious. “They weren’t providing an attractive offering for a key target — what they defined as ‘mass affluent’ — and they were missing an important opportunity to serve consumers right in their own market,” Weber notes.
“There was little to differentiate North Shore from any other financial provider, so members walked across the street to other Canadian banks for their financial plans, insurance and advice,” he continues. “Like most credit unions a decade ago, market research showed their brand was associated with that of a smaller, ‘mom and pop’ provider.”
“If they hoped to grow,” Weber adds, “they needed to radically reshape the market’s limited perceptions of the their brand.”
His vision was fairly radical. He would transform a garden-variety credit union into a wealth management institution focused on clients with complex and sophisticated financial needs.
Reality Check: Breaking into the affluent financial market is extremely challenging… for any brand, much less a credit union.
In 2005 the strategy started to come to life. In “Vision 2010,” an internal document Catliff wrote for staff, he explained how the organization was growing from a community credit union into a “sophisticated financial boutique with a lifestyle brand.” He cautioned employees that the strategy would require a deep commitment from “a dedicated team hungry for change.”
Catliff tasked a select group of employees from around the organization to collaborate with Weber Marketing Group. The assignment? To build a totally new business model and corresponding brand experience.
Catliff told them, “Don’t come back until you’ve reinvented banking.”
Weber recalls Catliff wanting to do something “totally innovative and not traditionally credit union-like.”
“Together, we envisioned an image and boutique service, much like the renowned Four Seasons hotel offers,” Weber says of the concept. “That didn’t currently exist in the market.”
To credit union wanted to attract two distinct segments: the “mass affluent” audience (those with $100,000 to $500,000 in investible assets), and the “emerging wealthy” (those with $500,00 to $1 million). To accomplish this, the credit union would need to build a distinctive new brand aligned with their target audience — far beyond marketing and superficial cosmetics.
“They had to identify all the gaps in products, image and delivery systems,” Weber explains. “And the whole time they are wondering in the back of their minds if a little credit union could pull it off.”
Birth of the Financial Spa: An Innovative New Branch Experience
The most visible result of the initial rebranding work is the “Financial Spa” branch concept that Weber Marketing Group and EHS Design designed. The concept first debuted in upscale West Vancouver’s Park Royal mall in 2006.
The design team says the spa concept focused on “an immersive West Coast contemporary zen aesthetic.
“There are lots of wood beams, stone, bamboo, hot tea,” says Catliff about the branch model.
The brand identity uses custom photography shot around the communities BlueShore serves.
“We want people to wonder, ‘Where is that beach? I know I’ve been there,'” explains BlueShore’s VP of Retail Banking, Reg Marrinier.
“The images are beautiful photos of people in places that are familiar but not always quite identifiable,” adds Catliff.
According to Marrinier, other design details of the financial spa experience include soothing water features, hot towels and an “Arts in View” program that showcases the talents of local artists.
But Marrinier emphasizes that it takes more than ambiance to create a brand that appeals to affluent clients; there’s the whole operational side of the equation.
“It was also critical that we hire and train the right team of accredited advisors,” Marrinier adds. “We needed to build the wealth product suite and financial offerings needed to deliver on our advisory promise.”
Has all the hard work been worth it? Absolutely, says Marrinier.
“It’s been a long journey,” Marrinier adds. “But today BlueShore Financial is ranked as one of the biggest financial planning firms in Metro Vancouver.”
Catliff says he want his clients (aka, “members”) to “feel calm and at peace so they know we’re taking care of them.”
“People are accustomed to over-lit banks where it always feels like someone’s trying to sell them something,” Catliff continues. “We’re offering a cup of cappuccino and a silver tray with hot or cold towels. The result is a soothing environment in which to discuss one’s financial affairs.”
( See More: Financial Spa Features Jazz, Arts, Flowers & Concierge )
Using CRM to Attract Affluent Clients
“We were fortunate to have instituted CRM programs early on that allowed us to collect valuable information about our clients,” says Catharine Downes, AVP of Marketing at BlueShore. “This knowledge allowed us to assign the right clients to a dedicated financial advisor.
“Our clients are often time-starved, busy people, with two incomes and large mortgage payments,” adds Downes. “They are living a pretty good lifestyle, but are challenged to get their long-term investment and retirement savings plans in action. Alternately, some already have built a degree of wealth, but now need help to manage and preserve it.”
Mark Weber says many of the credit union’s clients didn’t have a financial plan or a trusted financial planner to help them before moving their business to BlueShore. “That’s the ripe niche that they leaned into that almost no other financial institution was serving effectively,” Weber recalls. “Members now get special treatment, with the perks that private banking usually offers.”
Downes says these clients represent the heart and soul of their brand and business strategy. “We help them improve their overall financial well-being by offering proactive, personalized advice and keeping their best interests in mind,” she says.
According to Downes, the credit union has worked continuously to enhance and expand their brand — through imagery and language — to persistently emphasize the focus on wealth management, financial planning, and advisory services.
The Renaming Hurdle
The decision to change the credit union’s trade name from North Shore Credit Union to BlueShore Financial involved a long and complex process with board, staff, clients and management.
“We knew three years ago that the organization needed to fully assess its brand and name equity and market perceptions as we prepared to move from wallet share growth strategy to expand our share of this niche target market,” recounts Downes.
The credit union turned once again to their partner Weber Marketing Group to lead an evaluation of their name equity and identify strategic options. New names would also be developed, and then tested against the brand strategy.
“It was not an easy decision to make, given the longevity and reputation of a 70-year old name, but research revealed that it was the right choice,” credit union CEO Catliff says. “We had become a regional player, and our geographically-limited ‘North Shore’ name no longer fit us.”
The geographic concern was indisputably supported by research, says Reg Marrinier.
“Research uncovered that the ‘North Shore’ name undermined our ability to attract new clients and was a barrier to our long-term growth,” Marrinier observes. “The public’s assumption was that we only served and operated in the North Shore market, even though more than 50% of our existing clients live outside that area — 75% of our business by dollar value.”
Research also suggested that the “credit union” designation in North Shore’s name was a hindrance, as too many upmarket consumers believed that only basic banking services were available.
”By changing to ‘Financial’ instead of ‘Credit Union,’ we more accurately reflect the breadth of products and services we offer,” adds Marrinier. “The new BlueShore name aligns with our Financial Spa boutique brand.”
Marrinier says the switch to BlueShore Financial provides the credit union with an opportunity to tell a fresh story to its prospective affluent target market, without any of the barriers or misconceptions attached to the previous name.
The final phase of the branding and renaming process took a total of three years, something Catharine Downes describes as “a marathon, not a sprint.”
“It was a massive project, touching all aspects of our business, culture and operations,” she says. “It demanded a highly orchestrated approach to ensure every single employee fully understood the scope of the change — from both a tactical and cultural standpoint, rebranding represented a major change management process for our associates and clients.”
“We began nine months ahead of launch with internal communications, training, and a multi-phased implementation strategy, ensuring we had buy-in, support, and engagement of all our stakeholders, even our business partners,” notes Downes.
Downes and her team, with support from Weber Marketing Group, developed an engaging event to launch the brand with staff, which Weber followed up with a brand experience training program, and a new brand guide to all 300 employees.
BlueShore also worked with Canadian marketing agency Brand FX to revitalize the , including the organization’s brand identity, including a comprehensive new suite of brand and marketing materials.
When the public-facing brand program and new name were rolled out, BlueShore chose to do it with a bang instead of trickling it out incrementally. They used a marketing mix that included online, videos, TV spots, radio, outdoor and social channels. The first phase of the campaign focused on communicating the name change. The second phase shifted to brand messages about what makes BlueShore Financial distinctive and “a banking experience like no other.” The campaign was dubbed “This is BlueShore” and dials up the localized west coast imagery to a whole new level.
The results seem to speak for themselves. BlueShore Financial has grown over 400% in the ten years since they first launched their rebranding effort. All of the hard work Catliff and the BlueShore Financial team put into differentiating the brand appear to be paying off.
The credit union’s assets under administration have grown by leaps and bounds, increasing from $700 million in 2000 to over $3 billion in 2013, even though they have about the same number of clients today as they did when they first embarked on their rebranding quest.
A stunning 84% of BlueShore Financial’s deposits are from clients who have over $100,000 in investable assets with the institution, including 31% who have over $1 million.
Since it started revamping its operation, BlueShore has been named to Business in Vancouver’s “Biggest Financial Planning Firms in Metro Vancouver,” as well as Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures list.
“It’s been a ten-year, all-in, multi-million-dollar journey,” Catliff says. “But it’s been worth every effort. The result is a five-star, choreographed brand experience for our clients.”
“Without our incredibly engaged employees though, our premium brand experience could never have been achieved,” notes Catliff. “And that is one of the accomplishments he is most proud of.”
More About the Companies Mentioned
Founded in 1941, BlueShore Financial is a $3 billion credit union headquartered in North Vancouver, BC serving 40,000 clients across the Lower Mainland and Sea-to-Sky Corridor.
Weber Marketing Group is a leading financial brand and marketing consultancy headquartered in Seattle, Washington, with offices in Vancouver, BC and Atlanta, Georgia. Weber Marketing has developed brand programs, branded prototype environments and marketing strategies for some of North America’s largest credit unions, community banks and online financial providers.
EHS Design is a strategic planning, interior design and architectural firm located in Seattle, Washington serving financial, retail and corporate clients in the US, Canada and Guam. Design has completed over 1,400 retail financial branches.
Based in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Brand FX is a full-service communications agency focused on branding, advertising, graphic design and interactive