Is Bank Transfer Day more hype than consumer revolution?
Joe Mecca, marketing/advertising manager at Coastal Federal Credit Union, isn’t sure but either way, this year he may add Bank of America to his Christmas card list.
While launching a new premium tier to its popular Go Green checking account that rewards those who use their debit card at least 30 times a month with a higher yield was in the works since the summer for a fall launch, the timing of Bank of America’s announcement about charging for debit card use couldn’t have been better. Recognizing the gift-wrapped opportunity, the Raleigh, N.C.-based credit union quickly issued news releases to local media consumer reporters within days of the BofA announcement. In addition, Coastal brainstormed and filmed a television commercial that played up the concept of the last straw within four hours with about $35 worth of material. It was approved and ready for placement on air by the following week.
“We were just lucky as far as the timing,” said Mecca. “Normally with a rate change or program change, we just notify our members. But in tracking the conversations about the fees on Twitter with many of our members chiming in and recommending others join Coastal, instead we thought it warranted an announcement. Within minutes of sending the release to local media, we were contacted and that day, next to an article about BofA charging fees was one about how Coastal Federal Credit Union was rewarding members for using their debit cards.”
With creative about the new tiered program already prepped and set for launch, the new commercial was the only one created in direct response to BofA’s announcement. In just the month of October, the over $2 billion credit union added over 1,800 new members, representing double the average monthly new accounts.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of our new members were fed up with bank fees, but I think it’s something that has been boiling under the surface for a while,” said Mecca. “When Bank of America made the announcement about the debit fee charge, I think it brought the issue to the forefront. We’re not tracking which banks our new members are coming from because we’re more focused on looking forward and how we can help them.”
Timing proved to be everything as well for Kensington, Md.-based Signal Financial Federal Credit Union.
For the past month, the $293 million credit union has been running with the theme, “Your bank’s charging fees! What are YOU going to do?” The campaign features Joe Consumer searching for a better alternative than his bank, represented as a thief carrying a bag full of money or fee income. Since the launch last month, Signal Financial’s member service department has reported a big jump in new member call volume. In another bit of luck, the calls for Bank Transfer Day came on the heels of the credit union’s rollout of its new online account opening program.
“Bank Transfer Day just compresses into one symbolic day what we’ve been telling our members for years: Credit unions offer a better financial alternative overall, and one day you really will be tired of your bank,” said Signal Financial CEO Dan Stake. “For members and prospective members, it’s a wake-up call. For us, it’s a gift. Selling credit union membership just got easier.”
BofA’s fee reversal announcement last week seemed to do little to dampen credit unions’ Bank Transfer Day plans.
According to Paul Stull, senior vice president of strategy/brand at the $1.3 billion Arizona State Credit Union, he’s thrilled with the role credit unions played in the consumer win.
“The power consumers have is to vote with their feet. They can choose where they spend their money,” said Stull. “Local financial institutions provide valuable alternatives to consumers and help level the playing field for competitive pricing and quality service. If such options were not available to consumers, there is little doubt that Bank of America would not have reversed their fees.”
Over in Battle Creek, Mich., Kellogg Community Federal Credit Union has been busy encouraging consumers not to wait. However, in support of those who choose to make a stand closer to Bank Transfer Day, new members making a switch to the $370 million credit union on Nov. 4 and 5 will receive a thank you gift and $70 deposited into their new account.
Arizona Central Credit Union has plans to make Bank Transfer Day, a member appreciation day.
On Saturday, Nov. 5, the Phoenix-based credit union will host member appreciation events at five branches as way to thank current members and to welcome new members. Locals stopping by the open branches will be treated to giveaways and be entered for a chance to win a $100 gift card.
According to David Kexel, vice president of marketing at Arizona Central CU, since the announcement that some banks would be charging debit card fees, there has been a 200% increase in website visits and a steady stream of new members at the branches.
While the spotlight has never shined brighter on credit unions, Tyler Disburg, senior vice president at Montana 1st Credit Union in Missoula, Mont., expressed disappointment that credit unions didn’t make more of the opportunity with a unified national awareness message.
“I’m happy that the conversation is taking place in a very public way. I think we’re going to see pockets of great success around Bank Transfer Day, but I tend to believe that it’s a missed opportunity for delivering a cohesive communication plan to capitalize on, sustain and literally be a tipping point or game changer for the industry,” said Disburg. “What we need is a sound bite that in a succinct, meaningful way articulates the value we offer and resonates with the general population. ‘People helping people’ is not saying anything, yet Got Milk? does. We always have to have conversations to communicate the value, when we should have a message that is quick and easy for consumers to understand.”
Keep the T Day Ball Rolling
Weighing in on last week’s bank turnabout on debit fees, credit union CEOs and consultants urged the industry keep up the pressure and seize the opportunity in building new member accounts.
“We’ve seen a tripling of the volume, getting 3,600 new accounts a month as a result of consumer irritation with the banks, and we see no reason that kind of pace can’t continue down the road,” forecast Rick Foley, president/CEO of the $4 billion Delta Community CU of Atlanta.
Georgia’s largest CU began its heavy marketing efforts a year ago to encourage account conversions with a switch day. And that effort saw new accounts jump from 95 to 320 a month. “My belief is that credit unions need to continue to promote their value regardless of how big or small Bank Transfer Day ends up being,” maintained Bill Handel, vice president-research/development at Raddon Financial Group in Chicago. “The difference between the mega-banks and community-based financial institutions was significant even prior to the imposition of debit card fees, so the imposition of these fees was a means by which this difference could be driven home.”
Even though the debit fees are dropped, the ability to differentiate between CUs and large banks may lessen, but fundamental differences do not go away, said Handel.
In the view of Dennis Dollar, the former NCUA chairman and principal partner of a Birmingham, Ala. consulting firm, the mega-banks realized “they they are vulnerable to a significant loss of some of their most profitable accounts to credit unions and community banks.”
The battle for checking accounts, said Dollar, “is the battle for desperately needed fee income, and it will be fought for the next several years.”
Over the next 18 months, CUs, he forecast, “will pick up a sizable number of checking accounts when the comparison shoppers, reading the publicity about Bank Transfer Day, begin to recognize the credit union checking advantage that many progressive credit unions are offering in an attempt to seize upon this growing dissatisfaction with the big bank over reach on fee increases.”
"The beauty of checking accounts being the focus of Bank Transfer Day,” he said, “is that these are normally low-balance accounts with minimal cost of funds, yet they are huge fee income generators, even for credit unions with lower fees than their banking competitors.”
Checking accounts, he continued, are also the gateway to additional services from a member.
“With the average credit union having only a 42% checking account penetration rate among its own membership, I would say that it is very rare a credit union could find too much checking account growth since these are largely lower balance gateway accounts with minimal cost of funds and huge noninterest income generators."
In a Filene Research Institute blog last week, “The Day After Bank Transfer Day,” consultant Robert Hall warned that assuming BTD is successful, CUs need to convert these new deposits into earning assets–loans. Proper preparation for BTD requires “cross selling success during the new account opening process in refinancing auto loans held by banks” as well as a switch into lower rate credit cards.
Commenting on the ongoing industry debate about CUs using BTD for tough anti-bank ads,, Ben Rogers, Filene’s research director, said its research shows that even when the public is angry over such a phenomenon as the bank fees, there is not always a follow through in actually making the switch to a CU.
And customers, he said, do not necessarily move accounts based on explicit bank bashing. Accounts are moved when consumers can see “there are tangible benefits, such as $200 savings on a car loan,’ said Rogers.
But Ron Shevlin, senior analyst for the Boston-based Aite Group, a research firm advising banks and CUs, warned that while CUs may have won the lottery as a result of the big banks’ giant misstep, any fallout may be short-lived.
“Credit unions certainly don’t have to feel guilty about earning this great big pile of money,” Shevlin, told Credit Union Times, but they should realistically recognize the windfall came to them “not for who they are, but who they aren’t.”
“To me that’s kind of sad,” said Shevlin, suggesting that these kinds of funds may walk out the door and become short term after the hoopla ends.
He said that was the case several years ago after the securities and solvency crisis when funds shifted to other financial firms but only for a brief period. There’s no doubt, said Shevlin that the megabanks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo “screwed up by nickel and diming consumers in a nontransparent pricing practice that was not well thought out.”
But while the discovery of credit unions as the superior alternative is certainly a positive development for the industry and underscores good fortune, it is not one that has really been earned.