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One of the most difficult concepts for credit unions to grasp today is that of target audience. And yet every single credit union alive today owes their very existence TO a target audience. Firefighters, teachers, postal workers, churches, big employers like Boeing, IBM, GM, and the like. The common bond is what launched our industry and carved a niche in a very crowded marketplace.

But fast forward today and through mega-mergers, charter changes, two recessions and some bad management most credit unions have adopted a community or multiple SEG charter. Their territory – anyone who lives, works or worships in a multiple county area – is confused with target audience.

One of the arguments I hear against declaring a target is the misconception that you will exclude a group of people. After all, everyone needs financial services so why would I turn anyone away?

In my opinion there are two reasons why it is absolutely necessary to take the time today to figure out who your target audience really is:

1. Targeting an audience focuses your very limited resources.

2. Targeting an audience allows you to innovate and make the competition irrelevant – again.

There is one shining example of how a company innovated through targeting and as a result dominates their marketplace. Here’s the story of the iPod.

Steve Jobs readily admits that he came to the MP3 player game late. His passion was video. But when he realized there was evolution of portability and durability happening at a record pace (get it?) he used the power of psychographic targeting to disrupt the music industry.

Most people think of target audience around demographics. Females age 25-35, for example. To really innovate, that’s too broad. A psychographic approach to that same group might be “single moms with toddlers.” Psychographics identifies a problem that exists and aims to solve it. Every time I look to solve a problem I begin my thought process with “How might we……” In the case of the single moms “How might we make the errand of banking joyful for single moms with toddlers?” By asking that question and narrowing the audience I’ll bet you can immediately think of changes you would make to your lobby, service delivery, speed, etc.

Okay – so back to Steve.

Consider the evolution of music. Let’s go way back to the 1970s….

The vinyl record album. 
Problem? Durability and portability (you couldn’t play it in a car)
Solution? The 8-track tape and player

The 8-track tape player
Problem? Took us away from the familiar Side A and Side B – music was hard to find on demand. Not as durable as we hoped.
Solution? The cassette tape.

The cassette tape.
Problem? Still had some durability issues but gave us the ability to record our music – the mix tape was born.
Solution? The compact disc (CD)

The CD
Problem? The initial roll-out did not allow for recording but the quality was so great, music junkies replaced their vinyl and tape libraries with CDs.
Solution? The audio file format and the MP3 player

Here’s where it gets interesting. As you can see from the evolution of music above, the focus was always on durability, portability and not until the CD format, quality of sound. By now people demanded all of those features. And the person that was most interested was this target audience:

Raise your hand it you were the type of person that would call a radio station, request a song, and then stand by your tape recorder and wait for it to be played so you could record it?

In every audience that I ask this question there are always a small group that fit this profile. The audience always laughs, the “guilty” however are proud of it and when they see who else did it they form a bond – a common bond.

That was the target audience that allowed Apple to truly innovate. It wasn’t the iPod that was revolutionary. Is was iTunes. He knew that there were people so passionate about controlling their music listening experience that they would spend hours making the perfect mix tape. How easy is it to make a mix tape with iTunes? It’s insane.

And so consider this, and this happened two weeks ago. I asked a group of 75 credit union employees to raise their hand if they were the target for iTunes (the song requesting, mix tape making crazy). Only 4 people raised their hands. Then I asked, how many of you have iTunes today?

Every hand went up.

I rest my case.

Now go target an audience before your competition forces you to merge because you are still trying to be all things to all people.

I heard a great story last week. It was 1934, in Tacoma, Washington. The story begins in a stairwell at City Hall and involves a cigar box.

Wooden_Cigar_BoxIf you were to start a story with those details and be speaking to someone outside the credit union movement they would probably imagine all kinds of scenarios. But if you’re a credit union junkie, like me, you know where this story is going. It’s the formation of a credit union.

In 1934, my parents had not been born yet. There was no television, internet, microwave ovens, copy machines, email, cell phones, frozen pizza, iPads, bottled water, or air conditioning. There were plenty of banks however. And yet people felt compelled to take their paychecks out of a bank and put it into a cigar box in someone’s desk drawer. Why was that?

Common bond. They knew each other, they trusted each other.  It was a simpler time. Money went in the cigar box, and if someone needed to borrow money from the box, a group of their peers (credit committee) would decide if the purpose was provident and for productive purposes. A note was signed and the loan was made. The depositors received a reward (dividend) for trusting the system and have the satisfaction that they helped a co-worker. For decades these common bond credit unions had ZERO competition. We created credit union competitors when we adopted the community charter.

There would be no marketing department in the cigar box credit union for decades. The members were the marketers. The HR department was the ongoing new member drive. The decisions of the credit committee determined the success of the loan promotion. When it was time to formalize out of the cigar box the 1st branch was really the “break room.” Member/owners/co-workers would run the banking errand on their break at their credit union. Positive word-of-mouth was essential for survival.

Fast forward to today – common bond is all but a thing of the past. We have computers that make all the decisions for loan approval in a nano-second. We periodically have “Membership Bribes” to attract new people. We prefer members use the ATM, or online banking rather than come into a branch. There is no common bond. And don’t tell me that “lives, works, worships, in a 12 county area is a common bond.” Oh, and if you have your territory description on your website, please take it down. It’s embarrassing.

Unless your founding story has been tarnished beyond belief (Enron’s Credit Union comes to mind) I think it is our duty to tell it. To preserve it. It’s what makes us unique. It helps to remind us that we are merely the custodians of this history at this point in time.

And here’s your challenge – finding that common bond again. You need to target an audience in that vast territory that you have claimed. Otherwise you will become just another “me too” financial institution marketing with shiny happy people shlepping your 25 bp car loan advantage to people who could care less.

What is your story today? What is your vision for the future? Who will you serve? How will you make the competition irrelevant?


I hear it all the time – our members don’t CARE that we are a cooperative. And why should they? What have you done besides state the antiquated rhetoric “A credit union is a not-for-profit owned and operated by our members with a volunteer board of directors…blah blah blah.” We seldom even USE the words Co-Op.

Raise your hand if your credit union URL ends in .coop! Did you know you can’t just willy nilly buy a .coop on Go Daddy? Nope. You must APPLY for it and prove that you are indeed a cooperative.

When we asked a random sample (statistically significant) of our members on a scale of 0 – 10  “How likely is it they will recommend the credit union?” and “Why?” the answers were astonishing. Almost 30% of our members love us because we are local, not a bank, a credit union, or a financial cooperative. They do care.

Armed with this information we designed a logo – cuz that’s what we do in marketing.


Like to say we had a master plan, but we didn’t.  Thinking we would slap that on our web, maybe a t-shirt, we really didn’t know.  Then it came to us – let’s find local Co-Ops and see if they’ll partner in on the message. In Santa Fe (which is like liberal-granola-eating-Subaru-driving Portland only with sunshine) had only ONE Cooperative, the La Montanita Co-OP Market.

But up north in Los Alamos (where we started) we found two! The LA Co-Op Market and Little Forest Playschool, a parent run co-op since 1951! We met with them to brainstorm on how we might work together. Little Forest Playschool has an annual sale to raise money to run the pre-school – we offered free advertising. We put it up in our lobby on our InLighten Screens. LA Co-Op Market asked if we could partner with them to do a membership drive. We opened 83 memberships at our Los Alamos branch in one day for the market. Then it happened – the word got out and a delightful woman named Micheline approached me about adding the newly formed—- wait for it —- Los Alamos Beer Co-Op to the campaign!

Armed with these amazing partners we approached all of the Northern New Mexico credit unions and asked them to join in. Not a hard sell.  Last week-end we sponsored the first Keep It Co-Op Community Concert in Los Alamos and on August 21st will host the First Annual Keep It Co-Op Community Concert in Santa Fe. The city of Santa Fe liked the idea so much they kicked in some serious coin to support the event.


All Northern New Mexico based credit unions participate in shared branching – so guess what we’re doing next?

Anywho – feels good to blog again. I haven’t been able to because I always felt like I’d be revealing credit union strategy or the code to our super powers – but damnit – we need to cooperate!, not compete.

Cooperative Principle Number Six: Cooperation Among Cooperatives (it’s a good thing)

Can you imagine if the Don’t Tax My Credit Union effort was renamed to Don’t Tax My Co-Op! ?

Just sayin……

It’s becoming harder and harder to find the original credit union stories. So many CUs have eliminated them from the “About Us” section of their website. But I remember the story of Portland Teachers CU. In 1932, sixteen school teachers pooled six dollars each to create PTCU (today called OnPoint). In 79 years PTCU has grown to serve 244,000 members with assets of just over $3 billion. Not bad.

Now let me be on point. We all started with about the same amount of money. I don’t know if there was a credit union that started out with $50 million dollars or anywhere near that. These were all tiny upstarts. Yesterday The Financial Brand posted an interesting article about the future of the industry – 20 years out. Like so many, the prediction is mass consolidation and the end to the small credit union.

Today I was a guest, along with Sarah Snell Cooke, on The Power of Performance radio show with Jason Dias of Eloquent Online.

The show was meant to debate a hot topic that appeared in the CU Times last week. GTE Federal Credit Union changed their name to GTE Financial. Although I applaud the fact they did not kick their sponsor name to the curb (like Portland Teachers did) – to drop the credit union moniker was a point of contention with me.

During the discussion the largest credit union in the world was mentioned. Navy Federal Credit Union. Their “About Us” page says they were founded in 1933 with seven members and today serve over 3 million members with assets of almost $50 billion – with a “B”. That makes OnPoint look small. They no longer serve only the Navy. The serve all branches of the military and yet they remain true to their founders in both the brand “Navy” and the category “credit union.” Sarah said they grew because they had tremendous resources and that most small credit unions don’t have those.

Here’s where I get confused. The 1930’s was the boom age of credit unions. The majority of credit unions still standing were founded well over 60 years ago. And if they all started with a group of wide-eyed optimists plunking down six bucks each – how is it they all aren’t huge?

To be fair – Navy has a great field of membership because every year there are new recruits. A fresh batch. Many credit unions that were founded by say, the railroad workers, didn’t have it so lucky. But in the 80’s we were allowed to expand to family members and retirees. That’s how credit unions like Boeing boomed.

And after HR 1151 passed in 1998 – credit unions were allowed to have multiple common bonds. Anyone who lives, works or worships became the phrase that pays. But did it? Credit unions began to change their names in an effort to show the world that anyone could join. And when all of the good ones were taken we shifted to synthesized or pharmaceutical names. “Ask you doctor if Aventa is right for you.”

My dear friend Gene Blishen posted a brilliant blog yesterday in response to all this madness. He cited the Financial Brand article and the “shrinkage” of credit unions in America. Here’s a quote:

“I believe the key component to losing credit unions is their own belief that they are no longer relevant to their membership based on criteria that they inherited from outside sources. They begin to drink the wrong coloured Kool-Aid.” He goes on to say “By following the Pied Piper of ‘bigger is better’ they forget the culture they have and the history they have come from. To put it bluntly, they just give up…”

I would hate to tell one of the 16 teachers in Portland that put up what was a ton of money in 1932 that their vision was in vain. It’s too hard for a small credit union to stay in business in 2012. What with all the regulation, and technology, and competition.

Because it was so easy in 1932 – right?

Last week I hiked the hill. My first time ever walking the marble halls of buildings packed with our elected officials who will decide our future. The state flags line the halls – guiding us to our representatives.

I’m an Oregonian – born and raised in Portland. Always will be. I know that Portlanders are bred to dislike the state to the South – especially the deep south – Los Angeles. Portlanders are granola-eating-Birkenstock-wearing-tree-hugging-bicycle-rights-protecting-recycling-liberals.  Just watch Portlandia on the IFC network. It is spot on.

A recent transplant  to New Mexico I can say that they are rightfully proud of their heritage, their art, the balloon festival and of course…the green chile. There is NEW Mexican food and there’s Mexican food. Don’t ever confuse the two. The street Juan Tabo, is pronounced Whan TU-boh. I’m not supposed to love the Rail Runner (yet) and we are bustin’ proud of the film industry we’ve built and are pretty passionate about protecting it at this point. New Mexico’s motto: The Land of Enchantment.  The state that doesn’t HAVE to say “Don’t Mess with Us.” But instead lives it by appointing the Road Runner the state bird and a cactus as the state flower. The Road Runner, in addition to successfully eluding Wylee Coyote for decades also can kill a rattle snake. We’re just sayin’…..

This is why, in my opinion, state leagues work. Affinity. The same reason credit unions worked. A common bond. An intimate knowledge of the issues and nuances and cultural differences and the secret language of a state.

There were 17 of us from the great state of New Mexico hiking the hill last week.

Walking the long hall we passed the Senate offices of Kansas, California, Wyoming. As you read those states certain images pop into your head. That’s called branding. And it’s not fabricated by an ad agency, it’s been developing over hundreds of years through the natives and immigrants and sports teams and universities and farmers.

Speaking of the universities – states, like colleges have alumni. The people that were born and raised in the territory. Even when they leave – they will always be alums.

This is why the state league system has worked so well. This is why Edward Filene and Roy Bergengren traveled extensively during the 1920’s forming state leagues through the Credit Union National Extension Bureau. The term “league” was employed to denote a mutually supportive organization for the promotion and success of credit unions.

The state leagues each created a corporate credit union – the credit union for credit unions. But the corporate system just moved our money. Consolidation in that industry made sense and of course, as we know today, is mandated due to circumstances that I promise  never to address in this blog. We’ve flogged that horse ad nauseum.

I worked for the Oregon CU League many years ago. It allowed me to travel all over my home state. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to small towns  like LaGrande and Coos Bay and Klamath Falls. If it were not for the league, it’s likely I never would’ve discovered all that is beautiful in Oregon and met some amazing people.

Same goes for New Mexico. I’ve been to Silver City – where I found the most amazing wine bar. And had the Bobby Flay Throw Down winning green chile cheeseburger in San Antonio, New Mexico. I’ve seen Hatch – home of the world famous green chile. And of course the aliens in Roswell.

I hope we never forget these tiny pockets of our world. Where hard working dedicated souls continue to honor Filene’s vision of people helping people.

I got a message from Bill Butler, CEO of Ohio HealthCare FCU this morning. I did brand consulting for Bill and his gang many many years ago. Unlike the plethora of credit unions expanding their fields of membership to include anyone who lives, works or worships in a five plus county area, Bill decided to kick up his affinity. He decided to buck the trend and stay true to his founders. Some would say it was a very bold move.

The Ohio Healthcare FCU is limited to health care professionals (and their families).

Their tagline: We care because you care.

His members care for the sick, the elderly, the dying, the suffering. The credit union cares for their financial well being. OHCFCU launched an amazing contest this month to celebrate their members. It’s called the Next Top CU Member.

Check out Sandy’s Jessberger’s video. It’s simple and sweet and tells of her affinity with OHCFCU. She’s a trauma nurse – and when she’s not saving lives she’s raising her kids and remodeling her home and saving for Christmas and a dream vacation.  Her kids and grandkids are members of the credit union. It’s all about the affinity.

Affinity (noun)

1. A natural attraction, liking, or feeling of kinship.

2. An inherent similarity between persons or things.

All credit unions were founded on affinity. Or common bond. In the last ten years the trend has been to expand territory and target anyone. Lately the trend has been merger – yet very few are based on affinity. Some are out of necessity, others out of rapacity.

But beware — when you lose affinity,  you will likely become a utility.

Utility (noun)

1. something useful or designed for use

2. a program or routine designed to perform or facilitate especially routine operations

Also known as a bank.

I’m back in the office after a life-changing trip to Fishers Indiana. The first annual CU Watercooler Symposium was a giant success. It was an experiment that could have gone totally wrong. As a meeting planner and public speaker for years, I have to say it had so many opportunities to implode. The planning was unconventional, the coordinators for the most part inexperienced, the venue, a credit union – and did I mention in Fishers Indiana?

I was one of 11 editors tasked with pulling this off. I “hired” a speaker for expenses only. Always dicey. Let’s face it – there are two schools of thought on this strategy. You get what you pay for and he doesn’t really have a contract so if something better comes up, I’m screwed.

I met my speaker choice the night before the gig. I trusted that he would a. show up, b. show up sober and c. deliver the goods. I’m happy to say he did all three and more. He was so great CU Times approached him directly after his speech and this appeared by the end of the day!

The Watercooler was streaming live to audiences all over the nation. Most attendees live tweeted. There was no place to hide. The CU Warrior and Tim McAlpine just put it out there. And it was brilliant. They took everything we hold sacred in the conference arena and just tossed it lovingly out the window.

The biggest difference for me though was not the agenda, or the way speakers were “found” but the audience. These people wanted to be there. There was no golf, we stayed at the Hampton, we ate buffet food and we partied at Cheeseburger in Paradise.

It felt like some weird version of summer camp. At the end there was hugging and “see you next years” and a sense of belonging I’ve seldom felt at a regular conference. In just two short days there was bonding on the level of a DE or CUNA Management School. We worked hard, we played hard.

At this stage in my career, I feel very blessed to have been a part of this. A page has turned. Here’s to the next 10 years. The 2020 vision of credit union conferences is changing. Long live the Watercooler!

Be present.

That’s what Kevin Carroll asked us to do at the closing keynote session of The 1 Conference in Las Vegas this month. 2800 people from 60 countries were present, but he asked us to truly be present. Put your cell phones down. Pay attention. Listen.  Because he was about to tell his story.

At the age of 2, his father left, never to be seen again.  At the age of 6, three weeks after he started school, his mom picked him and his two brothers up from school and drove into the night. Finally arriving at an old trailer. She instructed them to stay put – and promised she would be back. One day went by – then two days – then three days. After five days Kevin took a stand and told his older brother “I’m going to go tell on mommy. She broke a promise.”

His grandfather wisely made the children memorize his phone number in case they were ever in trouble. He went next door and asked a complete stranger to call him in Philadelphia. The neighbor agreed to take these boys to the Greyhound station and ask the driver if he would please trust that these three young boys would be picked up in Philly and the bus fare paid. Finally he found himself in the safety of family. As soon as he arrived at his grandparents house he asked if he could go out and play. Being stuck and afraid for days in the trailer resulted in some pent up energy that he had to let go.

The playground was empty. Except for a red rubber ball. You know the kind. The one you played dodge ball with, or four-square, kick ball, whatever. Having no one to play with, he made up his own game.  He would kick the ball in the air and yell out a random number. That number was how many times the ball could bounce before he retrieved it. He was a fast little kid and could move. He was lost in this game. Then some kids arrived, intrigued, watching him play this weird new sport. They asked if they could join him.  Of course he said yes, and so he played that day. And the next. And the next with these kids in his neighborhood. And for the first time in his young life, he felt like he belonged. He was a part of a group, with a common bond. That sense of belonging was powerful and he never forgot it. It saved him.

Kevin has been a member of a credit union since 1980. In 2005, First Tech Credit Union in Beaverton, Oregon had the courage to help him start his own business.

Today Kevin holds a Master’s degree, has served in the Air Force, worked in the athletic department of the Philadelphia 76ers, was a catalyst for change at Nike, and now is the author of three bestselling books. All based on this red rubber ball and how you can elevate your game through the hidden power of play.

As Kevin was speaking, I noticed the CUNA logo illuminated on the curtains behind him. In the center is our red rubber ball. Suddenly I looked at this old logo with fresh eyes. I’m not sure what it was originally supposed to represent – but today it should signify “a sense of belonging.” The true credit union difference.

You don’t join a bank – you become their customer.

Membership should matter. We can never forget that.

I’m back at the trade association and yesterday was the kick-off of our Annual Meeting at the Buffalo Thunder Resort in Santa Fe. Last night  vendor dinner. And you know what that means – tcotchkes and door prizes.  I have CUANM booth duty this morning, we’re giving out these gorgeous beach bags to carry the loot.

Some things never change and for that I’m grateful.

I’ve always felt that vendors were there more as a thank-you to their clients than to “close the deal.” I mean, who’s going to review a contract with a wine glass in one hand, your cool pen in the other and the band playing The Girl From Ipanema in the background. Vendor duty is keeping the love alive – like in any relationship, whether you’re in the early wooing stages or you’ve been together a long time, they need to know you still care.

So if that means buying them the “office in a box” and slapping your logo on it – it’s all good.

CUSN wins, in my opinion for best giveaway. It is literally an office in a box – tiny stapler, hole punch, tape dispenser, staple remover, and highlighter. Elves had to have made this thing and I love it!

When I was a kid we gathered around the TV faithfully to watch the Waltons. That’s where I first learned that before television, kids sat on the floor and stared at the radio. And during that one hour radio show, there were commercials. That’s when John Boy could get up and pee.

I know that many credit unions still create radio ads – especially in smaller markets where it’s super cheap to broadcast. And I know that in some parts of the world – there probably are a lot of radio listeners.

But for the tech savvy Gen Yers in America- it’s Pandora on their iPhone plugged into the auxiliary jack in their car. The greatest invention since the cup holder (and shredded cheese in a bag) is the iPod jack. I can avoid those annoying radio ads and control my music. The irony? I just bought a radio with an iPod jack. What the What?

A dear friend of mine sent me this link last week Traditional Marketing Isn’t Dead Just Yet… the article they try to motivate you to keep on investing in old marketing with this statement:

Traditional (or disruptive) marketing still has tremendous reach. Instead of targeting small communities on the web, traditional marketing reaches a broad audience.

Wow. If that isn’t a glowing endorsement for social media – I don’t know what is.

If your goal is to attract a younger audience, radio is not the way – I don’t care what your media buyer says – it’s their job to spew stats. I guess I’ve always had a problem with the math of a media buy. Sure, the Top-20 station’s typical target is the coveted 16-24 year market – BUT – do they listen? Do they care? Will they buy what you have to sell?

RIP Radio ad. You were fun to write, produce and hear in my car, but it’s time to go.

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March 2023