Branding is about DNA, not smiles and dogs

For Raoust+Partners and CU Insight Published March 18, 2015 By Karen Haywood Queen.

Dogs. Smiles. Fun. That’s the theme of too many credit union brands.

A brand is not a logo. A brand is not a color palette.  A brand is not a dog.

Yet, an online search for credit unions with dogs or credit unions with smiles yields plenty of promotions based on smiles and/or canine friends.

Don’t blame the credit unions. Blame the ad agencies that confuse a promotion for a brand, agencies that talk instead of listen. These agencies trot out the same dog and pony show and then tweak that show slightly for each credit union. But dogs and smiles won’t separate your credit union from the pack.

Raoust+Partners knows that each credit union has a unique DNA. That DNA has nothing to do with dogs and everything to do with each credit union’s history, culture, community, employees and members. To create an authentic brand, Raoust+Partners doesn’t field test a dozen ideas to see what sticks. What it does is plenty of research–the kind that traditional focus groups and boring surveys don’t reveal. What it does is listen… No dogs either—unless the credit union is in an area with a strong canine heritage.

Instead, Raoust+Partners uncovers the credit union’s unique DNA and then builds on the core values of the past to move to a successful future. At Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union in Lowell, Mass., that DNA included a long history of reaching out to immigrants and the unbanked.

In 2009 when Raoust+Partners began working with Jeanne D’Arc, the nearly 100-year-old credit union was losing both members and market share. The listening approach yielded key intelligence.

Members and even former members felt a strong loyalty. But they thought of the credit union as they might a beloved former kindergarten teacher — a teacher you reluctantly leave behind after mastering the basics.

“The depth of their passion for the credit union was refreshing,” president and CEO Mark Cochran says. “But they thought they should grow up and go somewhere else later. They didn’t understand that there was more.”

Cochran, who had started at the credit union in 2007, knew he didn’t want to approach branding as a popularity contest.

“We didn’t want the coolest thing or even ‘This is who we want to be,’” he says. “With Raoust+Partners, our approach was ‘What are we? Who are we?’ We didn’t want to project ourselves as anything different from who we are. We didn’t go about trying to invent something new. We wanted to use our members’ words and perceptions as a launching point for where we want to go in the future.”

As Cochran listened to members, former members and employees, he heard stories of how the credit union had made a difference and how strongly the community and the credit union were intertwined.

“So many of these stories had a common theme: ‘I was new to this country,’” Cochran says. “The credit union was the first place that I had an account. It was the first place I got a car loan.’ But they viewed us like a hometown savings and loan — offering only checking, savings and mortgages.”

Jeanne D’Arc was already offering the products members wanted—credit cards, small business loans, automated banking –members just didn’t know. But getting the word out about those products was a minor part of the Raoust+Partners strategy. Emphasizing connections was the major focus.

At Jeanne D’Arc employees are part of the community and many know the members personally or at least at the level of  ‘I know your cousin who dated my sister.’ That shared history, knowledge and understanding make up the edge the competition doesn’t have. With that in mind, most of the marketing and advertising Raoust+Partners developed was based not on products but on the connection. With an authentic brand, employees don’t have to put on fake smiles and read from a phony script—they live the brand.

To reflect that shared history and values, Raoust+Partners created “We share a common thread.”

The resulting brand is a big mirror that accurately reflects members, employees, the community and the credit union’s personality. When members or perspective members look in that mirror, they recognize something that makes them feel comfortable and at home. They feel the connection.

That connection can happen only with a brand that is true to the credit union. An authentic brand reflects a credit union so closely that it would fail anywhere else. Raoust+Partners knows what works in Lowell, Mass., won’t work in Panama City, Fla.  At Innovations Credit Union in Panama City the resulting brand position was “Spark Change” based on the young credit union’s modern, progressive outlook.

Meantime since 2009, Jeanne D’Arc’s assets have nearly doubled, from $600 million to $1.1 billion—all organic growth, no mergers. The average age of members has dropped from 46 to 41. Average age of new members is 34

“It was the natural outcome of doing things that are right for our members,” Cochran says. “It goes back to that common thread.”

And an uncommon approach.