On The Shoulders Of Giants

When it comes to high-impact marketing campaigns, this Minnesota credit union uses sports-related brands to maximize its dollar spend.


Far too often, consumers consider making decisions about finances and banking relationships a mandatory yet unenjoyable undertaking. By aligning with non-financial activities consumers do consider fun, credit unions can encourage members to think about financial matters in a host of additional scenarios, such as in a professional or amateur sporting context. According to a 2012 report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, Americans spent more than $77.3 billion on sports equipment, merchandise, and apparel last year. And according to bleacherreport.com, the highest attended major league events — the NFL, MLB, and MLS — drew roughly 67,000, 30,000, and 18,000 attendees, respectively, per game. It’s time for credit unions to tap into that enthusiasm.

The value of strategic sports alliances is something SPIRE Federal Credit Union ($596.7M, Falcon Heights, MN) knows well.

“One of our greatest strengths today is our brand awareness,” says SPIRE CEO Dan Stoltz.

Technically an association credit union, meaning someone has to be a member of a co-op to be a member of the credit union, SPIRE also has a multitude of ways to qualify any Minnesota or Wisconsin resident for membership.

“Today we’re focused on being a visible part of the community, whereas before that wasn’t really an emphasis,” says Casey Carlson, vice president of marketing.

This new focus comes on the heels of a long period of budget cutbacks and a complex two-year rebranding process. Partly as a result of the new mentality, SPIRE has reached its highest membership on record: 63,931. In June 2013, it posted a 12-month member growth of 2.47% and reached 25.76 % of its potential membership. By comparison, peers with $500 million to $1 billion in assets serve an average of just 4.5% of the potential members in their markets.

The credit union partners with several local and professional sports organizations, including the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball’s St. Paul Saints, and the 3M Golf Championship.

“We want our members to feel they have a substantial value from their membership outside of the financial services they receive,” Carlson says. In many cases, both SPIRE and its partner organization see substantial benefits as well.

For example, after gleaning best practices from a Texas credit union that has a relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, SPIRE spent six months negotiating its status as the official checking account of the Timberwolves.

“When we deal with the public, we want to look big,” Carlson says. “Aligning with such a well-known brand allows us to do that.”

In addition to offering a co-branded Timberwolves debit card, the credit union has access to NBA games at the Target Center arena to drum up awareness. One effective strategy for this venue involves dropping cash attached to SPIRE branded parachutes from the rafters during games.

These promotions have attracted not only new members but also new employees.

“I was introduced to SPIRE through the Timberwolves,” says branch manager Miriam Wells. “I was at a game and somebody handed me a coozie that said SPIRE on it. I had no idea what that was, but I researched it because I was looking to refinance my mortgage.”

SPIRE and the Timberwolves work together to hold a Season of Giving toy drive and events for sick and underprivileged kids. And when it came time for the grand opening of the credit union’s new Maple Grove, MN, location, the attendance of point guard Alexey Shved helped draw a crowd of more than 300 people, despite frigid temperatures.

The credit union has capitalized on the popularity of athletic figures in other ways, too. It has added inspirational keynote speakers — such as Jamaican bobsledder Devon Harris — to its annual meeting and member appreciation day. These popular speakers, along with a small payout for attendance, have increased member turnout for the event from a few hundred to more than 2,000 last year.

There’s always a cost to such exposure. By investing in more comprehensive partnerships and initiatives, SPIRE has increased its educational and promotional spend by roughly threefold since 2010, according to Callahan & Associates’ Peer-to-Peer analytics.

But that’s not to say the credit union doesn’t use discretion in how and why it spends. Since the recession, SPIRE has been developing a more effective in-house marketing team, which now includes positions such as a copywriter and digital marketing specialist. This helps reduce reliance on costly ad agencies and vendors and allows SPIRE to redirect funds toward key community partnerships and other philanthropy.

As a result of these partnerships and communications efforts, SPIRE has gleaned a noticeable edge in its market compared to similar-sized peers. It has grown its average member relationship by 1.45% year-over-year compared to a peer average of -1.48% and also leads comparable institutions in product penetration for credit cards, auto loans, and real estate loans as of second quarter 2013.




Aug. 26, 2013


  • Banking is a chore. Anything we (the industry) can do to break the commodity mindset while reducing the chore, will benefit us all.
    Bryan Clagett