New Thinking about Affinities: Updating our approach to building loyal members

If the life blood of credit unions is affinity, we had better take a hard look at what affinities are becoming, how they are evolving, and what they are likely to be in the future.


Because people change jobs and move, FOM-affinities have been changing. People now might be more loyal to a Harley-Davidson club or the Oprah Winfrey show than to a factory or parish. We should take note and probe how credit unions can discover, deal with, and aid new affinity groups.

Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock of the 1970s predicted not only rapid change in a post-industrial society but also an increasingly fast pace of change. Well, here we are in Toffler's future, and sure enough, the pace of change seems swifter now than just a few years ago.

Change brings opportunities and problems. Today, I'm thinking about a problem: The shifting, seemingly ever more quickly shifting, nature of affinities. Affinities, of course, are the life blood of credit unions; they are written into our charters. Yet affinities are moving beneath our feet, a low-rumble earthquake that keeps going on and on.

FOM-affinity used to center on your employer or parish, and more recently, where you lived. But persons now change employers several times in their careers and move as many times or more, a trend that seems only to be accelerating. And big corporations are breaking up. How can employment at General Motors be an affinity when the company is selling off Pontiac, Saturn, Saab, and Hummer? So if the life blood of credit unions is affinity, we had better take a hard look at what affinities are becoming, how they are evolving, and what they are likely to be in the future.

Harley-Davidson Owners?

Matt Davis, the head of public relations at Members CU in North Carolina, has done some thinking about this, and got me to thinking about it also. At a panel we shared for the 75th Anniversary of the Federal Credit Union Act last month, Matt gave a slide show called "Oprah, Chicken, and the Future of Credit Unions." You can watch a version of it on Matt's blog ( Matt's notion is that affinity groups aren't going away; they are shifting to the likes of Oprah fans, Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners, Macintosh computer owners, Cleveland Browns fans and the like. If persons put a bumper sticker about their group on their cars, or a permanent tattoo on their arms, they are seriously connected to that group.

To Matt's list of affiliations, I might add the following: high school and college alumni groups; Facebook groups; a Michael Jackson fan club; environmentalists (this is already being tried in California); and professions (realtors across the country have recently formed an FCU). Persons are also passionate about certain charities. Might we not offer a credit card to such a group with the charity's logo on it and that pledges its transactions fees to that charity? Or a credit card to Macintosh users that accumulates points toward the owner's next Apple product purchase?

Working Our Greatest Strength Again

In the early years of credit unions, we took advantage of our greatest strength: affinity to a factory, union, school system, or the like. In the last twenty years, we have become more open to non-affiliated members; we have become more homogenized, and – by means of branches – we have expanded physically across territory. But we haven't so much heeded the appeal of affinity, the appeal of a passion for a core value, and this is a mistake. We can't allow loyalty to a credit union to slip to merely a good rate on a loan or a new product; that’s the kind of attraction banks depend on.

In a changing world we have to discover a way of finding and fostering loyalties beyond the financial services we offer. We should find ways of discovering where persons demonstrate passion or loyalty or core values and then approach them with things we can provide that would enhance their passion or loyalty.

In a world that in some respects is digitized, homogenized, and flattened, you have to look harder for where people are building their loyalties. These may be in unusual places.

But we need to start looking.