Are Credit Union CEOs On The Mark With Marketing?

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Mark Arnold published a blog post recently titled What CEOs Want From Marketing in which he captured the thoughts of a number of credit union CEOs regarding what they’re looking for from marketing. A few of the quotes caught my attention:

“Our marketing efforts need to be developed from the perspective of the consumer, not the credit union.”

“I want our brand to be consistent across all channels.”

“I would like our marketing to get us noticed by people that need our products and services. I want the message to reflect our commitment to community, our genuine concern for our fellow citizens and our professionalism. I also want a consistency in our marketing program that establishes an attractive, easily recognizable brand.”

“I view marketing as making the introduction while the responsibility for turning the introduction into a relationship falls to the staff (Loan Officers, Customer Service Reps, Deposit Staff, Trust Officers, etc.).”

My take: If these views are representative of credit union CEOs overall–and I believe that they are–then credit unions are: 1) missing opportunities to make Marketing strategic by relegating the department to tactical activities, and/or 2) putting Marketing in difficult positions by giving them fuzzy, hard-to-measure objectives.

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At the risk of offending any of the quoted CEOs (which I could say is not my intention, but you’re not likely to believe me), some of the comments sound contrived. Example: “Marketing efforts need to be developed from the perspective of the consumer, not the credit union.” What does that mean? Is it OK for marketing to propose initiatives that produce no return on investment for the CU because it was developed from the “consumer perspective”?

Example #2: “I want [marketing’s] message to reflect our commitment to community, our genuine concern for our fellow citizens and our professionalism.” Cumbaya, my lord. So what you’re saying Mr. or Ms. CEO is that you want marketing’s message to sound like the same meaningless platitudes put out by every other financial institution in the industry. And wait, what exactly is marketing’s “message”? Do you mean the advertising the CU does? Is that what marketing boils down to, its “message”?

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Overall, I discern a common pattern in the CEOs comments regarding what they want from Marketing: A focus on “branding” and “lead generation.”

Truth be told, I don’t know what “branding” is. Every time (OK, nearly every time) I mention branding in a blog post, an Oregon-based friend of mine schools me on why I’m wrong, and how I’m misinterpreting what branding is and isn’t. So I won’t comment here on what it is and isn’t. But what I can say is that if I don’t get it, I’m willing to bet that a lot of credit union CEOs don’t get it either.

So why would they make comments about wanting marketing to “ensure our brand is consistent” or “establish an attractive, easily recognizable brand”?  Because they don’t really get, or understand, the role that marketing plays–or more accurately–can play in the organization.

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Of the CEOs quoted in Mark’s blog post, the one that struck me as best understanding marketing’s potential was the “finance guy” (su-prise, su-prise!) who said:

“My expectation is that marketing will help us achieve our strategic goals, manage our primary employer sponsors, understand what members want and recommend new products for us to offer to them and help members be aware of the services that meets their needs.” (italics added)

Understand what members want and recommend new products to offer. Yes! A great example of what marketing’s strategic contribution could be.

Sadly, though, this CEO prefaced the above-quoted statement by saying “I know [Marketing is] doing an outstanding job maintaining and protecting our brand.” Yeah, right. Exactly how do you know that?

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Could I be wrong, and could this CEO’s request of marketing–to understand what members want and recommend new products to offer–be representative of credit union CEOs throughout the industry?

Doubtful. First, because, excluding the things that involve my wife, I’m never wrong. Second, because the research I and Filene Research conducted this year bears out my assertion.

Just one in ten credit unions has a dedicated new product development role in its marketing department. Eight of ten credit unions said that responsibility for new product development is handled on a project-by-basis. So it seems very unlikely to me that many marketing departments are charged with recommending new products to offer. As a result, one in four credit unions expected to offer no new products or services this year, and another 25% expected to introduce just one new product or service.

So are credit union marketers doing what “finance guy” wants his marketing department to do? Not when it comes to recommending new products to offer.

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I find it interesting (disturbing is probably the better word) that none of the CEOs quoted in Mark’s post said “I want Marketing to identify and size the market potential for our products and services” or “I want Marketing to identify consumer trends relating to financial services before our competitors do” or…a hundred other things that would reflect Marketing’s strategic contribution.

Do credit union CEOs really know what their marketing departments are good at, and not good at? Do they have a sense for what their marketing departments’ competencies are? I’d bet that most don’t.

Bottom line: Credit union CEOs don’t understand the strategic role that Marketing could and should play. But this isn’t a one-sided problem. Many CU marketing departments couldn’t play that role even if they were asked to. They don’t have the skill sets to fill the role, nor the funding to hire new staff to acquire the skills.

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