HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Who says it is the slacker generation?
Credit Union Times spoke with five innovators who are not only under 30 but are also making a significant impact in the credit union industry bringing a fresh, progressive perspective to a traditionally stodgy industry.
Creative Brand Communications CEO Jeff Stephens, who is 29, founded his agency with the vision to develop truly unique brands for financial institutions across the country by using traditional and non-traditional strategies to help credit unions demonstrate their value.
The former Umpqua Bank Marketing Project Manager first learned about credit unions through his work with banks, and as Stephens became more aware of the credit union difference, he quickly recognized the value proposition credit unions offer consumers and wanted to help them.
"Here credit unions have their own philosophy and unique compelling story to tell and prove, yet most are doing a so-so job of demonstrating it," said Stephens. "Credit unions believe in and want credit union differentiation but what we find is what they are actually doing is only what we like to call 'better-entiation'--meaning they are not truly positioned as different but as 'better'. The problem is that every other credit union is saying and doing that as well."
Stephens said the best way to go from desire to delivery is for credit unions to better develop their identity and enhance what is unique and different rather than what makes them better.
To clarify the distinction between better and different he cited the typical credit union talk of "delivering world class service" as a means of setting itself apart.
"It is a clich?(C). So you define this great customer service as knowing everyone by name, friendly, pleasant staff, being responsive to member's needs, and those attributes are all good and positive, but those alone won't differentiate that credit union," said Stephens. "Being nicer is not different, and the more credit unions succeed at being nicer the more they all seem the same."
He added that for true differentiation credit unions have to dig deep and identify something only they own and build on that.
"You build a position only you can occupy," said Stephens. "So for example let's say your identity is really having a sense of humor and you focus on being the funny financial institution or the place where the unexpected can happen. Then you work to make sure the service delivery demonstrates that. That may mean finding ways to make members laugh. You do a good job of carrying that out and delivering your story that at the end of the day, the member isn't saying 'they are so much nicer than that other place down the street' but rather 'that place is unlike any other experience I've had.'"
Stephens defined brand as the collective total of all experiences that the credit union creates and delivers all the time to everyone from members and employees to the communities it serves.
"Go through an objective process and figure out what your credit union really stands for, something only your credit union can own and then do everything in your power to deliver on that through action and not just words," said Stephens. "Do that and you'll deliver a more on-brand unique experience that no other institution can copy."
At 28, Brad Garland is CEO of The Garland Group, which provides all levels of technology risk, audit, and compliance services for financial institutions.
He said what he enjoys most is software development and creating social software for financial institutions and the opportunities that technology can provide the next generation of banking.
"So looking ahead, success in the future boils down to credit unions being authentic and actually listening to their members," said Garland. "It sounds simple but it is really so important they do that as this is a very authentic time period these days and company transparency is big."
He said technology can go a long way in transparency just be prepared for the "bumps and bruises" along the way. The feedback may not be what credit unions want to hear but the flip side is it can provide great insights that can lead to more nimble, responsive organizations.
"From the Web 2.0 movement, blogging standpoint it gives a mouthpiece to the members to speak their mind about products and services," said Garland. "There's a lot of talk about blogging these days and posting what is going on at the credit union if you want the member to truly buy into what the credit union is all about then you have to let the members comment and really listen."
He added that from a compliance and security standpoint the future means accepting that it is a continuously evolving process that requires a proactive approach rather than a reactionary response can ultimately improve the institution.
"It's about keeping your eyes open and seeing what's on the forefront and putting in the time and resources and constantly evolving. With compliance you can't just set up a process, check it off as completed and say that's it," said Garland.
Twenty-seven-year-old Trabian Technology Founder/CEO Matt Dean couldn't agree more about creating an outlet for idea exchange.
After graduating college, Dean began to focus on developing sites for credit unions and felt there was a need for cutting edge Web design that incorporated social media elements with sound design and software development. In addition to building Web sites for credit unions the firm has also launched OpenSourceCU.com, an outlet and resource designed to open communications between members and credit union management/leaders.
He does caution that before credit unions jump into building MySpace or Facebook pages they actually participate themselves.
"I've found the most effective use of social media is when credit union individual blogs or marketing blogs talk about what they're interested in and participate in a conversation," said Dean. "Don't try to be cool for the sake of being cool, this generation looks for authenticity and you don't want to have a credit union go out there just using the latest lingo."
He added that consumers now own the business brand and the blogger has just as much impact as a public relations department.
"The best business decision a credit union can make is rekindling the focus on the membership and reigniting their evangelistic feel to encourage passion and empower younger staff," said Dean. "These are our future leaders; they need to be engaged. People are more willing to stick around if they feel that the value of what they are a part of is bigger than themselves."
At 25, Market Insights Director of Marketing Brady Walen encourages management to think differently about the role of marketing at their credit unions. Market Insights is a consulting firm specializing in the development of strategies to help financial institutions remain relevant and grow in today's dynamic marketplace.
"What credit unions have relied on for so long-- generalized blanket statements in marketing like the overarching 'great member service' will not take them much further than they are now," said Walen. "Credit unions can no longer just do things in the traditional ways they have in the past because there's been a market shift in consumer behaviors and it's time to adapt and embrace those changes."
He pointed to the online banking platform as an example in consumer behavior. No longer the differentiator it was in the past, it is now a consumer expectation. Credit unions have to adapt faster and get their marketing plans out of the rut of running ads the same way year after year.
"Ask yourself how relevant is this medium, message or product to the potential member," said Walen.
He said it is one of the toughest challenges to shake up the internal culture to accept changes that have to be made.
"Try looking around at business examples outside of the financial services industry and learn how they adapt to change, keep it relevant and stay on top of their game," said Walen. "It is also important that decisions aren't only made by senior management--open the doors. You have this diverse, multigenerational perspective across your departments--talk to your employees and find out what is relevant to them or people they know and what ideas they have to do things differently."
He added that he's not suggesting decisions be made by vote, but he said that it is a good way to check the pulse of consumers.
"A lot of decisions are made by senior management teams or boards that have been there for years, and they are making those decisions based on their personal filters. Ask your employees in their 20s or 30s for ideas or opinions. It doesn't mean every suggestion must be implemented or pursued but at the same time you have a constant source of fresh ideas and fresh perspectives that will keep your credit union more relevant to the members you serve."
A lifelong credit union member, brass|Media Founder/CEO Bryan Sims (age 24) created a firm that conveys to young adults the importance of understanding money in a way they can relate to. With an eye on helping credit unions connect with the next generation brass offerings range from a magazine and an award-winning student program, to now brassSHOW-- a three to five minute video podcast about young adults, money and real world stuff--that credit unions can license and place on their Web sites to begin delivering updated content rather than the typical static sites.
"It's all about using as many different channels as possible to reach young people," said Sims. "Start internally and move externally create a youth advisory board, get young members involved in your new projects, and at the board level make sure there are some young people. I've seen credit unions that just want to find out the hottest trend and then jump on it without considering if it will have a significant business impact."
He pointed to the buzz about Second Life (creating a virtual world of credit union branches) and advised credit unions to put their time and resources into improving their delivery channels.
"Avoid trying so hard to stay on the leading edge that you forget some of the basics-- why talk about a virtual branch rather than figuring out digital signatures for online applications," said Sims. "Being authentic is most important, then figure out your channels instead of just focusing on the channel first with no backup."