The marketing team at BECU ($13.1B, Seattle, WA) frequently finds itself communicating with a combined current and potential membership base that reaches well into the millions, says Tom Berquist, the cooperative’s senior vice president of marketing and cooperative affairs.
An audience of that magnitude may seem like a dream to some, yet creating and maintaining a brand that resonates with so many different people in so many different places and phases of their lives has required making some hard choices over the years.
CU QUICK FACTS
data as of 12.31.14
HQ: Seattle, WA
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 7.99%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 12.86%
While BECU currently ranks near the very top of the nation’s credit unions according to size, it has never had the luxury of unlimited marketing resources, Berquist explains.
So when seeking to forge a brand that could stand the test of time, the credit union had to carefully decide three things:
Who are we as an organization?
What does that mean for our members and our communities?
How do we share that vision with the world?
Establishing Who You Are
“In the mid-2000s, we made the decision to build and invest in our brand,” Berquist says. “We hadn’t developed any common language and we hadn’t really done any advertising, so consumers had a tough time knowing what BECU was, who could join, or what we stood for.”
In many ways, the rumored acquisition of Washington Mutual — which was indeed eventually taken over by regulators and sold off to JPMorgan Chase — prodded the discussion.
In response to the bank’s 2008 purchase, BECU reached out to its ad agency at the time to plan a mass media campaign, Berquist says. But the agency informed BECU that no one would know who the credit union was because of its low market awareness.
Members First; Do The Right Thing; Be Real; Own It; and Know Your Stuff. Those aren’t new ideas to us, but having them defined and engrained in our culture this way ensures that even as we grow, we don’t lose what’s most important.
The cooperative considered changing its name but ultimately decided to stick with the acronym “BECU,” which the credit union pronounces B-E-C-U, not BeeCue.
“Initials are not the easiest way to market a brand, but we believed if we were successful in our branding efforts, then consumers would associate BECU as a great place to bank and think less about what the initials stood for,” Berquist says.
More important than the initials is the credit union’s brand promise. Last year, BECU refreshed its value statements by asking employees — who must ultimately represent BECU’s brand and values — to describe the credit union.
“They came up with five phrases,” says Benson Porter, BECU’s CEO. “They are: Members First; Do The Right Thing; Be Real; Own It; and Know Your Stuff. Those aren’t new ideas to us, but having them defined and engrained in our culture this way ensures that even as we grow, we don’t lose what’s most important.”
In addition, the credit union has hired several employees with ad agency and digital marketing backgrounds to support these efforts.
“Some of these employees came over from much larger organizations,” Berquist says. “By comparison, there’s a lot of running room here for them to try out some interesting new things.”
A card case with these accompanying printed cards allows BECU employees to keep their values close at hand and top of mind. (Click to view larger size.)
Defining What That Means
In the early part of this decade, members surveyed about why they switched to BECU most commonly said they wanted to be with a credit union, says Berquist, citing the far-reaching impact of Bank Transfer Day.
But now — thanks in part to BECU’s focus on creating tangible proof points of the value that members receive not just as members of a cooperative generally but specifically as a part of BECU — members can draw on more functional benefits such as price and convenience.
For example, in its current credit card and line of credit rate reductions, BECU reviews all qualifying card and LOC accounts — filtered for things like delinquencies and low balances — and automatically lowers the rate. In 2014, the credit union reduced the APR on nearly 37,000 accounts without the member having to do anything.
BECU’s relationship-based Member Advantage program is another example of a tangible benefit. The program has been in existence for years and drives substantial rate-based savings for engaged members. Similarly, the Early Saver savings account for members younger than 18 offers a 6.17% rate on the first $500 deposited and has attracted millions of dollars in new activity.
Unfortunately, members can overlook or forget about the benefits of the Member Advantage program, Berquist says. So although BECU is keeping this program for now, it is looking for ways to reallocate the value in a way that serves as a stronger proof point that encourages and rewards member engagement.
Similar to other credit unions, financial education is another important focus for BECU. Moving forward, the credit union is partnering with behavioral economists to revamp its financial education approaches in a way that actually changes behavior — particularly with regards to savings — rather than just creating awareness through seminars.
“Many Americans don't have any emergency nest egg and are one medical bill or other unexpected expense away from having debt or going deeper into it,” Berquist says. “So the focus there will really be on starting that savings behavior, in a manner that fits with our model.”
Proving Your Impact
Although BECU recognizes the potential to impact both current members and the general community through philanthropic pursuits, it has decided for now to concentrate its efforts on areas where it feels it can perform the greatest good with its dollars.
Both this philanthropic activity as well as ongoing member benefits are now prominently featured via data points in the credit union’s annual report and monthly newsletters as well as its annual sustainability report.
For example, in 2014 it provided more than $350,000 in scholarships and grants to college students and low-income school systems. Its employees also donated 11,100 volunteer hours and more than $225,000 for various causes, the latter of which BECU matched dollar for dollar.
At the same time, Berquist says, the credit union realizes its members have interests that aren’t necessarily in BECU’s main areas of focus. In recognition of that, the credit union provides what it calls its People Helping People program, where members can nominate area non-profits for additional support from the credit union. In 2014, BECU dispersed more than $100,000 to these selected groups.
Both this philanthropic activity as well as ongoing member benefits are now prominently featured via data points in the credit union’s annual report and monthly newsletters as well as its annual sustainability report, a document that allows BECU to share information about its impact on a broader social, economic, and environmental scale.
“We started out using the Global Reporting Initiative framework,” Berquist says. “That lists everything from how you treat your employees and vendors to your community giving.”
But the GRI program is designed for global businesses and includes questions that aren’t relevant for domestic financial services. It also puts more value on transparency than doing the right thing, Berquist says.
As an alternative, BECU is looking into the reporting methodology of a benefit corporation, which is an organization that pays taxes but by definition is in existence to create some type of public benefit.
“Whenever you start tracking and measuring something, you start thinking about it that much more often as an organization,” Berquist says. “But you also need a strategy to aggregate and distribute that information in a meaningful way, so that people can truly understand your entire role in the community.”