The Voice of Canadian Credit Unions
Human Resources / Marketing /  •

The key to great creative

Get big bang for your marketing bucks — no matter the size of your budget

creative marketingWhen it comes to throwing a Halloween party, you have to hand it to the folks at the Sunova Credit Union ($1.1 billion in assets, 31,000 members) in Selkirk, Manitoba.

One year, CEO Edward Bergen actually dolled himself up as Little Bo Peep, while good-humoured senior executives disguised themselves for the day as a flock of sheep. And last year, at the Stonewall branch, the team dressed as the cast of the musical Grease, even performing a few of the hit songs, much to the delight of passersby. In fact, every Halloween, staff and management at this growing financial services cooperative pull out all the stops in the name of fun, not to mention office bragging rights for best costume and decorations.

“It’s pretty unreal, the effort that goes into it,” says Vanessa Foster, Sunova’s director of marketing, of an event that is fast becoming tradition across the credit union’s 11 urban and rural branches. “We have a couple of branches in particular that will completely transform their workplace so that you wouldn’t even recognize you are in a branch.”

Small budget – but big ideas

It’s no wonder, then, that when it came time to brainstorm a new and innovative way to boost credit union membership and brand awareness across a large and demographically diverse region, Foster and her small team of in-house marketing professionals were quick to borrow from the Halloween theme. The resulting Bark at the Moon campaign was, by pretty much every metric that exists, a howling success. Using digital screens at credit union branches and traditional print invitations handed out to members, schools, daycares and community groups, the campaign triggered a landslide of positive publicity and drew huge crowds of people, young and old, to the various branches to see just what the fuss was all about.

The clean, sophisticated design and playful canine content – a nod to Sunova’s real-life St. Bernard dogs that live and work within the cooperative network – also caught the expert eye of judges at last year’s Marketing Association for Credit Unions (MACU) awards, winning the credit union a trophy in its size category. Not bad for a project that cost just under $3,000. It’s certainly enough to have other credit unions across the country sit up and take notice.

The Sunova experience proves that good marketing doesn’t have to cost the moon. Even a tight budget, used well, can attract the right kind of attention and deliver an effective message, whether it’s to do with rebranding an organization, expanding into new territory or selling important financial products or services. So how do cooperatives, working with a shoestring budget, cover their advertising and marketing needs to get their message out while ensuring the return on the investment of time and resources? 

Cutting through the clutter

To marketing pros, a new ad campaign is like a new baby. It’s exhausting work. Ultimately, though, it’s a great opportunity to re-focus an organization’s priorities and set long-term goals that extend beyond the day-to-day challenge of doing business. Yet in this age of hyper-connectivity, finding an authentic voice amid the marketing clutter has never been more complex. Add to that the terrific pressure faced by credit unions to find new ways to show how their strengths are relevant to a generation of young Canadians who tweet their every thought and do their banking by mobile phone. At the same time, cooperatives are expected to hold true to their community roots and the unique history that ties each one to its existing membership.

The push and pull of all these expectations can be confusing, says Yvonne Swiderek, a media writer and strategist with Words with Wings Communications, based in Winnipeg. “It’s like having your feet in two different worlds. I really take my hat off to those who are able to do that successfully,” Swiderek says.

Derrick Coupland, a leading brand strategist and principal at Blacksheep Strategies Inc. in Winnipeg, says even the smallest of credit unions are increasingly responding to the demands of the new world and the need to keep pace with technology. Coupland was on the panel of experts judging the recent MACU awards and he noticed a strong theme of online, mobile and digital banking among entries from across the country.

Credit unions are also putting more energy into social media to directly engage and converse with younger members. But many still wrestle with the question of how much is enough when it comes to the time, money and energy one can dedicate to the cause.

Traditionally, Coupland says a credit union could rely on a simple formula largely based on its location. The more rural an organization is, the less likely it is to be an aggressive marketer, while, in urban centres, the situation is inverted. The bigger the city, the more likely a credit union is to find itself facing stiff market competition, both from the traditional banks and even neighbouring credit unions. But those rules aren’t as steadfast as they once were. Credit union mergers and expansions mean many organizations cover wide geographic territories, where “local community” can mean something very different between each branch.

The digital age, too, has stripped away the last bit of immunity to competitive pressure anyone may have had. Even a credit union that is the only bricks-and-mortar financial institution in town can no longer afford to sit back in the shadows and think it can survive without actively promoting itself. “Regardless of whether you are urban or rural, as a consumer, we are all exposed to the same levels of marketing intensity. Everyone has the same TV channels, the same tablets and smartphones,” Coupland says. “It would be a dire mistake to think rural customers don’t recognize the options. That is a thing of the past.”

Even a credit union that is the only bricks-and-mortar financial institution in town can no longer afford to sit back in the shadows and think it can survive without actively promoting itself

At Edmonton’s Servus Credit Union($13.4 billion in assets, 390,000 members), marketers have had considerable success staking the cooperative’s territory in a competitive landscape on the strength of powerful messaging that puts it smack in the path of the big banks. The credit union’s widely applauded “Nada” campaign, for example, uses bold, single-word headlines to effectively hammer home the financial advantages its members enjoy versus those who choose a more traditional banking route. It also underscores Servus’s financial credibility, on the same level as that of the banks. “Zero, Zip, Zilch, Nada, Diddly Squat,” state the campaign posters (and digital billboards). That’s followed by the provocative question: “Is this how much profit your bank shares with you?” By contrast, Servus shared more than $47 million with its members last year.

In cases where another cooperative is perceived as a significant threat to business, a competing credit union might do better to highlight its company culture, history and any other very specific details in order to stand out. “Something that says, ‘Relative to others credit unions we stand for this’,” says Coupland.

The right mix of talent

Credit unions, for the most part, are similar to any other business in that its in-house marketing department will develop a brand with the assistance of an outside agency.

Sunova is the rare exception. Working with an annual budget of about $300,000, its team of three marketing professionals, including Vanessa Foster, tackles every marketing challenge from selling RRSPs to broadening brand awareness. “We try to appeal to people based on the things we do differently,” says Foster in summary of her team’s winning touch on various campaigns. Sunova recently rebranded in a bid to better reflect Manitoba’s changing demographics. It emerged with a new name and vibrant orange colour scheme that is designed to attract its target consumer: the hard-working, young family that wants to grow and prosper alongside the credit union.

At the same time, the credit union added dog “ambassadors” to several of its branches. Images of the much-loved animals are repeatedly used in ads, brochures, posters and online channels, a move that instantly increases brand appeal. “We’re lucky. We’ve got a pretty neat brand that is easily marketed,” Foster says.

Doing more with less

More commonly, a credit union will outsource at least a portion of the creative to an agency. The division of labour is dependent on the size of the cooperative involved, the talent it has at hand and the scope of the campaign. The banks employ a similar hybrid model, though with considerably more resources at their fingertips to turn over every stone in search for competitive insights, says Michael Rodenburgh, vice president, Western Canada, for Ipsos ASI, an advertising research firm.

“A credit union will [often] have to figure out ways to do the same things with less. They have to be more frugal and nimble with their money,” he says. That’s not to say it’s not achievable to build a great brand on a limited budget. Servus has managed one campaign success after another with the help of an external agency, most recently DDB. Since rebranding in 2008, the credit union relies on its agency partner to drive the creative demands of its largest annual campaigns across print and digital platforms.

Servus’s four-person in-house marketing department is largely responsible for internal promotions, particularly those requiring a quick turnaround. For Michelle Beland, the credit union’s chief brand officer, the ability to tap both talent pools is ideal. It’s a challenge for fresh ideas delivered by a top-notch agency to be matched by even the most dedicated workers, who often don’t have the time or the flexibility to consistently come up with exciting new concepts, she says. At the same time, internal staff provide valuable brand consistency and help keep costs associated with a campaign from soaring out of reason.

When to bring in the experts

For her part, Yvonne Swiderek is “a great believer in bringing in the experts when it is time.” She shares Beland’s view that a collaboration between external and internal talent is the best way for any organization to maximize innovation, both creatively and technically.

But it’s important to get the right fit, and not just fall for the first poetic charmer who walks in the door.

Swiderek recommends that a credit union considering working with an agency engage in a formal process to encourage bidding. The process could mean posting a general Request for Proposal (RFP), or handpicking a half-dozen or so agencies to share their creative vision. Whatever else they do, participating agencies should include credible tracking measures in their bid in order to evaluate a campaign’s success – or lack thereof – at various steps along the way to completion.

“Bring in the real people who are going to be using the product or be affected by the campaign once it is out. That can really makes the difference and lessen the risk of failure,” Swiderek says.

Credit unions should also be prepared to provide bidding agencies with detailed, and sometimes sensitive, business statistics and philosophical preferences, from the size of their assets and how they compete in the market to whether they want an agency with previous experience working with creditunions or someone who can offer a completely fresh approach. No amount of detail is too much. “The best RFPs should result in specific, tailored recommendations by an agency to demonstrate its capacity to serve the credit unions needs,” says Coupland. Organizations that are skittish about including too much information can protect themselves by requesting bidding agencies sign a confidentiality clause.

The end result is key

Ultimately, the experts agree, it doesn’t really matter whether a marketing campaign is produced in-house or outsourced to an agency. What does matter is that the finished product is effective, competitive and compelling in the marketing stratosphere. Bombarded as we all are on a near-constant basis with ads of all shapes and sizes, consumers have grown accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. Anything that falls below that standard is doomed to have little impact. Worse, it will make the organization behind it look like an amateur.

Luckily, credit unions have a big competitive advantage in the market. By virtue of their history and, often, deep roots in a community, each has a story people can relate to on a deeply personal level. But that emotional attachment unto itself isn’t enough to keep you in the game, cautions Rodenburgh. Credit unions must also strive to stay relevant to every consumer need, from the technical to the practical.

Over at Servus, they call it “the balance between heart and smart.” “We already rate high on the heart meter. Now the challenge is to move on the smart meter,” says Beland.

“We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but my theory is that it’s easier to move towards the smart without losing the heart we have today.” ◊