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Notes from MACU

The Marketing Association for Credit Unions' annual conference bring fresh insights to the masses


In the old days , so the story goes, seekers used to climb remote mountains to engage gurus in deep discussions about how the world should be run.

Credit union marketing professionals, too, have come to believe that a step back from the daily grind can provide a whole new perspective. Their mandate may be smaller – and they tend to prefer conference rooms and hotel bars – but the wisdom still flows when they rub shoulders away from the demands of the office.

That’s what makes the annual get-together of the Marketing Association for Credit Unions (MACU) so special, says the organization’s chair, Shawna Miller. “MACU is the only marketing conference that targets credit unions directly,” adds Miller, who is also vice president of governance and strategy at Saskatchewan’s Affinity Credit Union ($4.7 billion in assets, 130,000 members). “It provides a unique opportunity to interact and exchange ideas about best practices, but also to rethink the way we do things back home.”

This year’s event, which took place between May 26 and 28 in Montreal, showcased the annual Achievement in Marketing Excellence Awards (AIME) finalists and winners. It also boasted a range of out-of-the-box thinkers and featured a trade show during which suppliers plugged their wares.

Fine speakers, fresh insights

Joëlle Adler, president and CEO of the apparel manufacturer Diesel Canada Inc., was one of many motivational speakers. She discussed her evolution from a results-oriented fashion executive to one who now more broadly incorporates charitable initiatives into her life. Credit union marketers, who also balance bottom-line demands with social responsibility, were particularly touched by Adler’s story about how her husband Louis Adler’s death motivated her to found the children’s charity ONEXONE.

Also intriguing was Internet guru Mitch Joel, president of the firm Twist Image. He urged marketers to break through the “digital noise” and grasp the prevailing realities of the marketplace if they want to attract members and maintain their participation. “Physical locations are becoming a thing of the past,” said Joel. “The new real estate out there is the screen, whether it be a desktop, laptop, mobile or a different device.”

Another speaker, Jones Soda creator Peter van Stolk, described how he managed to garner media attention without resorting to the usual public relations and marketing playbook. Van Stolk, now CEO of the organic online grocer, recently opted to donate his entire speaking fee to Change for Children Association (CFCA), an Alberta-based charity that works with partners in Latin America and Africa to alleviate poverty.

Filling a void for small business

A hot topic over the two-day period: how credit unions are fighting to deliver better services to more members efficiently and effectively. As in any war, strategy starts with a review of the competitive landscape, those at the gathering agreed. The good news, they concluded, is that credit unions emerged from the 2008 financial crisis not only intact, but with their reputations as honest brokers enhanced. Moreover, recent developments, such as new legislation allowing financial services cooperatives to expand outside their home provinces, signal an even brighter future.

Clear opportunities are on the horizon, both in the consumer and small business markets, MACU participants indicated. The credit unions’ main competitors, Canadian banks that form a de facto oligopoly, are showing lasting signs of losing touch with their clientele. Pressured by restless shareholders, who demand double-digit returns in a single-digit-growth economy, the banks have been relentlessly raising fees, closing branches and cutting services.

Doug Bruce, vice president of research with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said in a post-conference interview that the effects of the big banks’ behaviour show up in satisfaction surveys his organization has conducted. “Credit unions consistently score at the top in all key survey areas, including financing, fees, willingness to lend and account manager quality,” Bruce added. “In fact, there is a huge gap between the lowest rated credit union, which far outperforms the best-performing Canadian banks.”

A major selling point for credit unions is that their account managers, deeply connected to their local communities, have great relationships with their business and consumer clients, Bruce said. By contrast, banks have relegated their account managers to junior roles. In many instances, they’re little more than keypunch operators, who enter client loan request data into computers that often make the decisions for them. “CFIB members continue to tell us that if they can avoid going to their bank they will,” said Bruce. “There is a good opportunity for credit unions to come in and fill that void.”

Heeding the membership

MACU’s Shawna Miller admitted that many credit unions still face tough competition from banks when it comes to technology, however. Automation, mobile platforms and social media can be challenges for smaller financial services cooperatives, she pointed out. As well, like banks, credit unions are seeing reduced member traffic at the branch level along with increased online activity. This has forced credit unions to improve the ways they keep in touch with member needs.

One example: Miller said Affinity no longer conducts annual member satisfaction surveys as it has in decades past. Instead, it is asking selected members for feedback within 24 hours of a branch transaction. “Our brand resides in the thoughts of our members,” Miller explained. “Because everyone is now connected through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, that image can change on a dime, which means we have to be flexible.”

Affinity has been getting particularly good results from its participation in a Remote Deposit Capture (RDC) pilot project that stemmed, in part, from a demand identified by members. Its DepositAnywhere™ service, introduced last year and now widely used across the Canadian credit union system, enables members to make deposits to their accounts merely by taking a picture of their cheques with their mobile devices and uploading them (See “Cheque-Mating the Banks,” Enterprise September 2013). Today, DepositAnywhere generates an average of nearly 2,500 user deposits at Affinity each month. Paying attention to the membership definitely pays off, more than one professional agreed.

“Most major credit unions are clients of ours,” said Michael Rodenburgh, executive vice president of Ipsos Western Canada, a market research firm that provides advice on advertising and branding. “The ones that listen to their members identify opportunities earlier and mitigate the risk [involved] in launching or promoting a new service or idea.” Richard Seres, vice-president of marketing at Vancity ($17.5 billion in assets, 501,000 members), and a longtime Ipsos client, attested to Rodenburgh’s observation.

“We always make sure that what we are doing or saying comes from the perspective of a clearly identified member need,” said Seres, adding that this approach helps Vancity determine its marketing priorities, too. For example, Vancity recently used an instant evaluation tool to see how people responded to a planned television ad.

“When you only have the budget for one 30-second spot, you need to make sure it’s working as hard for you as possible to get your message across and get noticed,” Seres said. “We learned a lot from the exercise and it helped shape the messages and visuals we chose to feature. For example, we saw that people reacted really well to iconic local imagery so we ensured that this showed through in the creative.”

Credit union values

Conference participants agreed that consumers look askance at selfserving marketing claims, so the consensus was that credit unions need to be smarter in their approaches. “Members say to us all the time: ‘Don’t tell us that you are a credit union … show us,’” recounted Jean-Pierre Sablé, executive vice president of marketing, strategy and innovation at Quebec’s Le Mouvement des Caisses Desjardins ($212 billion in assets, 6 million members). “We make special efforts to demonstrate the tangible value they get by dealing with us.” Desjardins’ promotional endeavours include supplying members with goodies, such as insurance renewal discounts, free Canadian Automobile Association memberships, access to their credit files and so on. Yet its strategists believe the marketing campaigns that work best are those that reflect the cooperative’s real values. One longtime example is its School Caisse program, which seeks to teach children financial literacy. More than 100,000 students in 1,100 elementary schools across Quebec and Ontario participate in the School Caisse program, which enables them to open a bank account right in their classroom. (To give an idea of the 100-plus-year-old program’s massive scale, the birthrate of Quebec, where the initiative is mostly centred, was 88,500 in 2011).

Because the program has been around for so long, Desjardins officials can’t estimate how many students have participated in the School Caisse initiative over the years. However, given that many Quebec adults still maintain the accounts that they opened as children, the School Caisse program is clearly a major element in Desjardins’ dominant market position in the province. More important, the program’s success, which dates back to the time of founder Alphonse Desjardins, is rooted in its sense of social responsibility. “The program does not cover its costs,” says Sablé. “But as a cooperative with a special mission, Desjardins maintains its involvement.”

Anti-spam legislation an issue

Canada’s anti-spam law (CASL), which came into force on July 1, was another major topic at the conference. Participants were concerned that it would add new constraints to the way credit unions do business. Catherine Bate, a partner with the law firm Miller Thompson LLP, explained how that could happen. She noted that anti-spam legislation requires senders of commercial electronic messages (CEMs) to get the express consent of the recipient. Although most credit unions have been careful not to harass Internet users, the legislation will nonetheless “have an immediate and lasting impact,” Bate told some of the participants present. The reason: pre-checked opt-in boxes will not be sufficient. Nor will consent tied to the receipt of a service or entry into a promotion. As well, the new law mandates that certain material must be incorporated in most messages, including contact information and an unsubscribe mechanism.

The big takeaway

Jeff Elgie, founder of DIG, a consultancy that helps clients optimize digital assets, was one of the judges in the AIME competition. He cited Vancity’s Change That Counts campaign as an example of marketing at its best. When the Canadian government discontinued the penny in 2013, Vancity capitalized on the event by producing a billboard mosaic comprised of more than 60,000 pennies, coupled with a crusade urging Canadians to start penny drives for good works in their communities. “They also generated a tremendous amount of earned media because of their efforts, which made the campaign doubly effective,” said Elgie.

The big conference takeaway? Most successful credit unions are innovative and adaptable – traits particularly important when they must use precious resources to make themselves heard above the big banks. “The ideas that impressed me most,” Elgie stressed, “were the shoestring budget submissions, in which credit unions did more with less.”

Doing more with less. That’s a mantra any guru could get behind. No mountain necessary. ◊