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Michigan Credit Union League Home » Information Services » Publications » Contact » 2008 » 4th Quarter » Cover Story: The Difference Is Clear  

CU Difference:
A Fresh Message from a Trusted Partner

The 'Difference' is Clear

Financial services have garnered much attention as the nation faces economic obstacles, but Michigan credit unions are embracing the spotlight with the Credit Union Difference campaign.

It has been a year in which tumultuous change was the name of the game for the American economy. The highs and lows of economic cycles are to be expected, but few predicted a downturn as sweeping and dramatic as what has befallen housing and credit markets, sinking stocks around the globe.

Many point the blame for the current U.S. economic crisis on irresponsible lending and inadequate regulatory oversight, and credit unions have suddenly found themselves in the midst of a national discussion on the role the financial services industry has played. But unlike many financial services companies, credit unions have a record of responsible lending and have avoided the practices and risks that have tainted other financial institutions. They have remained a trustworthy place for consumers' assets and searched for solutions to economic woes both here in Michigan and across the country while avoiding the pitfalls of subprime lending and risky investing. Credit unions remain well-capitalized and sound financial institutions, and with that in mind, the industry is in a prime position to separate itself from the pack.

"Perhaps the most dangerous element of this recent economic downturn is the potential for consumers to lose faith in the fundamentals of our financial system, considering it is largely built on trust," said MCUL President/CEO David Adams. "While the U.S. government has taken some necessary steps to restore that trust, we in the credit union industry have been given the chance to show consumers our value as secure, federally-insured financial institutions that have weathered this crisis we did not create. It also presents opportunities for credit unions to grow, expand and meet needs of their members and communities."

For more than 20 years, the MCUL and Affiliates have worked with Michigan credit unions to spread the credit union message through a comprehensive cooperative advertising campaign. It has grown to a $1.5 million effort supported by half of Michigan's credit unions – the largest voluntarily funded credit union cooperative advertising campaign in the country. Through this campaign, radio and television ads communicate to consumers the personal service and low rates and fees offered by not-for-profit, member-owned credit unions; but in September, the MCUL saw an opportunity to focus specifically on the element of trust within credit unions' relationship with their members that is most important in these trying economic times. "Love + Trust = My Credit Union" became the central theme of a revamped and expanded cooperative advertising initiative called CU Difference.

"The cooperative advertising efforts between Michigan credit unions and the MCUL are an integral part of the League's advocacy plan, and CU Difference shows that these efforts are dynamic and can change to reflect the most relevant message," said Darren Cameron, VP of marketing for Genisys CU (OC) and chairman of the MCUL's CU Difference Committee (formerly the Cooperative Advertising Committee). "The committee viewed the switch to a CU Difference theme as being very appropriate. Consumers need to know that credit unions offer a trustworthy alternative to  other financial institutions."

CU Difference was initially implemented in October as a supplemental campaign by placing new radio ads that continued to run through the fall, along with public relations efforts by the MCUL that alerted media statewide to the initiative and the investment credit unions were making (see page 24 for more information). The campaign will expand in 2009 with an updated that reflects the "Love + Trust = My Credit Union" theme, online video plug-ins and customizable collateral materials. All of these, including the radio ads, will be available for leagues and credit unions across the country to create a unified message.

"It's important to note that the intent of our CU Difference campaign is to focus on the positives of credit union membership, not to create negative consumer perceptions of banks," Cameron said. "Based on how CU Difference has been embraced by the credit union community here in Michigan, we look forward to seeing how other leagues and credit unions will run with it in the coming year."

Given the economic challenges facing Michigan and the U.S., many credit union leaders agreed the time was right to raise public awareness of credit unions and their value with the fresh advocacy message presented by CU Difference. In September, the MCUL met with 41 of Michigan's 50 largest credit unions for a preliminary meeting to discuss CU Difference, followed by a Webcast in which 140 credit unions were represented. Over 70 percent of Michigan's 350 credit unions decided to support the campaign, including the 20 largest, and committed to invest more than $700,000 in the creation and placement of the fall supplemental campaign.

"When I first came to the credit union in 2004, I did not support cooperative advertising," said Michigan Tech Employees FCU (UP) President/CEO Ted Fredrickson. "We were struggling financially, so I didn't support any unnecessary expenditure. As we recovered, however, cooperative advertising still didn't make any sense to me. As far as I could tell, we got very little advertising return from these campaigns and, being located in the remote Western U.P., our market wasn't exposed to many of these ads.

"When I began to think of this as advocacy for the credit union business as a whole, my attitude changed," Fredrickson added. "I no longer think of it as competing for my regular advertising dollars. It's a separate part of the budget.  I've also come to believe in the importance of advocacy for the future of all credit unions, especially smaller credit unions. It's the same reason I support CRI. The goal is to create a positive image in the minds of consumers, communities and politicians – the image that credit unions, though a small part of the financial services industry, are important, valuable, and worthy of support and protection."

The CU Difference creative material and media buys have been coordinated by CU Growth Solutions, the full-service marketing and advertising agency headed by CUcorp Vice President of CU Growth Solutions Lee Ann Mares. The bulk of the CU Difference materials are broken down into three target demographics: Generation X, those born between 1961 and 1981; Generation Y, those born between 1982 and 2001; and Baby Boomers, with a focus on young seniors.

The targeting will be accomplished by having sections of dedicated specifically to each age group, along with radio spots and collateral materials. The targeting will feature members of the given demographic telling their personal stories through video, pictures and audio. Each section of the site will contain topics and resources relevant to the group.

Through the meetings with credit union leaders, the MCUL listened carefully to input and feedback in order to create a plan that would be shaped by the credit union community itself. Though the CU Difference campaign will speak in broad terms for the benefits of credit union membership, most materials will be customizable to reflect a credit union's name and logo to add further value for participants. 

"I like the added benefit that I'll be able to use the collateral materials so that our members will see the connection between us and the advertising," said Communicating Arts CU (MW) President/CEO Hank Hubbard. "I also like that my thoughts and suggestions are taken seriously. I really believe that the whole campaign, not just the special supplemental push in the fall, will help our credit union get the message out."      
The coming year will be challenging as the nation begins to heal the economic damage that has been done and begins to point fingers; but rather than simply defending themselves, credit unions are using CU Difference to embrace the position they're in and further reach out to consumers in need of a financial institution they can trust. The economy is changing, but credit unions can use this change as a means to raise their own profile.

"The negative media messages about our current economic situation can be overwhelming, but this is truly an exciting time for credit unions," Adams said. "We should be proud to be in the unique situation we are in: dealing directly with many of the financial issues facing consumers, but in a positive way that provides hope for families dealing with a lot of bad news. CU Difference is a proactive way for credit unions here in Michigan and across the country to unify and raise awareness that will benefit us all."

To view CU Difference materials, hear the radio ads and learn more, visit

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