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What if you had $0 dollars in your marketing budget this year? How would you spend it?

Chris Tissue, Industry Analyst for Callahan & Associates, Inc. published an article last week that showed the sharp decline in educational and promotional expenses among credit unions. The average decrease 11.4% from 4Q 2008 to 4Q 2009, with the largest credit unions cutting back the most.

Every credit union in the US started with a marketing budget of zero. Zilch. Nada. And for years they thrived by focusing those resources on building member loyalty. They built loyalty by listening to members’ needs, responding with relevant products, and recommending solutions. The members in turn bought more from the credit union and told their co-workers and family members about the co-op.

Several years ago, Diana Dykstra decided to return to those old school methods. She is the CEO of San Francisco Fire Credit Union. When she first became CEO the credit union had changed their name to SFFCU and expanded to a community based charter. This angered the loyal firefighters and their families. They felt somewhat betrayed. So, she decided to switch it back to San Francisco Fire and really crank up loyalty among them.

Her boldest, bravest decision was to refund all ATM surcharges. You see, they only own a couple of ATMs and even though they participate in the Co-Op and Shared Branch networks they knew that members hated being charged to get their money. So when it happened –  poof – charges reimbursed.

Did this cost them money? Absolutely. But guess what? It’s the number one reason cited on Yelp! that people feel love and loyalty towards the credit union.

She also does some “old school” things like giving little Snickers bars to members when they come in and she pays for their parking. I guess you could classify this as marketing dollars. And probably the most expensive thing she does – she personally responds to emails from her members. If you go to her website you’ll see the Ask Diana link on the main page. Several members on Yelp! reviews credited this unselfish act as the reason for their loyalty.

Diana won’t use her loyal members’ money to woo in complete strangers with membership bribes that promise free iPods. She doesn’t have to.

Instead, 64 members have voluntarily taken the time to review her credit union on Yelp!. She has earned the highest rating – 5 stars. The next closest credit union in her area is Patelco Credit Union with 24 reviews and 3.5 stars.

You simply can’t buy this kind of love.

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April 2010