Overheard at the Forum: How Apple FCU Gives Innovation a Nudge

Much of the action at The Financial Brand Forum 2024 takes place in the hallways and ad hoc meetings where attendees talk shop with each other, comparing ideas and approaches to common challenges. Here's what was on the mind of a frequent Forum attendee.

How do you teach people to innovate if they don’t consider themselves to be innovator material?

Financial marketer Cynthia McAree gets this question a lot from her often-young marketing staff. Creativity is not necessarily the same thing as innovation and McAree says sometimes they get discouraged because they don’t feel inventive.

She says there’s a misconception that financial institution innovations are the work of tech geniuses. “Sometimes, instead, you just have to tweak something in order to be an innovator,” she says. “The result doesn’t have to be brand-spanking-new.” A good example: An upcoming credit product variation her organization has in the wings.

McAree is chief marketing officer at Apple Federal Credit Union, a $4.4 billion in assets institution in Northern Virginia, serving teachers and community members. McAree has been with the credit union for over three decades. (Think “apple for the teacher,” to get the name. It’s not tied to the digital giant. In fact, The Financial Brand covered Apple FCU’s campaign poking fun at Apple Computer in 2019.)

A product under development at the credit union would give it an entry in the buy now, pay later race. It will be a variation on BNPL called “post-purchase finance” — permitting purchases to be paid over time after originating as credit card charges. While large bank card issuers like Chase and Citi have been adding this option — its roots lie in the American Express Plan It service — Apple’s move would bring this concept directly to a big block of credit union customers.

Delivering the new service will not just tweak a basic product, but also adjusts Apple FCU’s historical posture not to partner on products. She says offering BNPL will be assisted through a fintech partnership, leveraging the fintech’s expertise and members’ trust in their credit union.

The Financial Brand caught up with McAree during a break at the 2024 Financial Brand Forum to talk a bit of shop.

Convincing Younger Marketing Employees to Give GenAI a Try

McAree has become a big believer in using GenAI tools, such as Google’s Gemini and OpenAI’s ChatGPT. She hasn’t turned this loose yet on customer-facing communication, but regards it as a helpful utility. Often, she says, it’s handy to break writer’s block with headlines or openings of pieces she is cranking out.

Similarly, she finds it helpful to come up with first-round suggestions. For example, a friend asked McAree to come up with a name for his new company. It happens that McAree knew very little about the field the company works in. She still wanted to be helpful, so she loaded some questions into the software and asked for a list of company names. By the time the process was completed she and the software came up the name that the friend eventually chose.

McAree is a veteran marketer and is happy to tap the assistance of GenAI to save a bit of time. But it’s actually younger employees that resist using the technology, she says, because there is a strong feeling that GenAI is going to put them out of work. McAree has tried to put their minds at ease, because she believes the new tools can produce some efficiencies.

She stresses to them that she doesn’t see GenAI tech as a way of replacing people, but instead enhancing their performance.

Besides, McAree says, she relies on new human hires to bring fresh perspectives to Apple marketing. She says that she figures she has about six months with any new marketing employee where they still see the world through their own eyes. After that it’s natural, she says, that as employees they will start seeing the business from the credit union’s perspective.

McAree had attended the Forum’s AI workshop the day before and said she agreed with the recommendation of Ron Shevlin, session moderator, to think broadly when trying out GenAI. The point is that banks and credit unions tend to isolate a new technique to a very specific use case. Shevlin, chief research officer at Cornerstone Advisors, believes trying out multiple ways to address challenges with GenAI makes a better trial run.

The dark side of GenAI is a growing concern for McAree. She says the credit union has already seen some members fall for deepfakes of family members. Clearly, the credit union has been thrust into the position of preparing consumer education to keep members from becoming victims of such trickery. (Nothing the credit union has tried so far touches any systems that contain members’ personal information.)

Read more: AI is Set to Shake Up Banks’ Employee Ranks – But Maybe Not How You Think

Digging into the Subscription Concept

McAree has projects big and small underway.

One ongoing effort concerns making branches more pleasant and convenient. One effort would have put package-return services into select branches, to bring in potential new members through the exposure. The credit union is trying out scented air for two offices. She says initially the credit union is using a sandalwood/vanilla blend. It’s a variation on the trick of baking cookies in branch lobbies to add a scent of home.

More radical: Increasing regulatory attention to fees has McAree looking into next-generation subscription accounts. The idea is to provide multiple services or accommodations that formerly commanded punitive fees into more of a membership idea, which also fits with the credit union motif.

“People like options,” says McAree, so she has hopes of designing a package approach that will get legs.

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