t is no accident that everyone refers to the credit union
industry as a ''community.'' Credit unions truly are
a cooperative network with a shared sense of purpose--and
where one succeeds, they all succeed. Credit union executives
eagerly share both positive and negative experiences with
one another because of this common interest. As one executive
explained, ''…having the guts to share what went
wrong [saves] others the pain of learning.'' Conversely,
positive word-of-mouth is often the most effective way to
This ideal of ''community'' is what many credit unions
feel set them apart most distinctly from other financial institutions.
They are not just a community of their members, they are a
community unto themselves. Understanding just how strongly
credit unions view themselves as unique is critical to approaching
the market with a message they will respond to.
''The human body is one of the most complex and most
capable creations. Yet it is made up of individual cells that
are relatively much simpler. Linked together they produce
an unrivaled result. Credit unions [together] can achieve
the same result.''
A little lofty? Maybe…but the message is there. Credit
unions work best when they work together.
Creating a Message that Speaks to 'Community'
So what does a supplier do with this information? One option
is to create a message that underscores how unique the credit
union industry is. A credit union CEO we surveyed said, ''I
appreciate hearing something that reminds us how credit unions
are really different from banks and how we can put our money
where our mouths are!''
Point to success stories that demonstrate how a product or
service helped another credit union. ''[I am] more interested
in credit unions that have [used this service] and actual
results,'' than a sales pitch, said another credit union
Propose solutions to challenges that are specific to the
industry. For example, a credit union CEO crowed, ''credit
unions have a unique opportunity to explain the difference
in the relationship that exists between their credit union
and its members and a typical bank and its customers,''
only to be countered with the argument, ''How do we get
the word out to the general public? Do we pool advertising
dollars? How do we compete for market share with the big banks?''
Unlike in the banking industry, where banks actively compete
with one another for consumer dollars, credit unions are willing
to pool resources to promote the benefit of credit union membership.
There is a small warning that comes with this message. Despite
credit unions' shared sense of purpose, it is equally incumbent
on the supplier to recognize that, individually, credit unions
do have differences. Like a family, although its members may
operate as a team, that does not mean all the members are
identical. A credit union executive complained about one vendor
presentation by describing it thus: ''Comic relief. All
credit unions are not the same; just like all banks are not
the same.'' Some credit unions serve a tech-savvy membership;
some support distinct ethnic communities; and others were
created with a single purpose to provide one and only one
product to its membership. These differences in membership
may require adjustments in language or benefit when marketing
a product or service.
Strange Bedfellows: Cooperation...and Competition?
The fact that credit unions work together despite differences
in membership or mission does not mean the industry lacks
a competitive edge. Credit unions are, in fact, evolving to
become more competitive in the financial services industry.
Their public profile is growing as they expand their fields
of membership and the range of services they offer to their
members. At the same time, credit unions remain rooted in
their ethic to serve the member AND each other. Credit unions
are committed to a common goal of service to the individual,
and they are willing to work together to achieve this. The
open invitation to the supplier ''community,'' is
to help them compete, not against each other because that
would undermine the credit union ethos, but against other
Bottom line is, show credit unions that you ''get it,''
that you understand their cooperative foundation and have
a product or service that complements this fundamental definition
of what credit unions are. Credit unions work together. They
are deeply vested in each other's success. When you serve
one credit union, you are, de facto, serving the entire community
of credit unions.