Survival Means THINKing Outside the CU Box: Editor's Column
THINK is the best credit union–yet not credit union–conference.
I was really impressed with THINK the first time I went a couple of years ago, but when Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Tim Sanders, formerly of Yahoo!, spoke about their businesses and philosophies, I wondered whether credit union attendees would connect the dots. How many would bring ideas back to their credit unions to implement? Worse yet, would those not witnessing the passion of Hsieh when he spoke of respecting his employees and exceeding customer expectations get it?
Credit union leaders do because THINK 12 drew the conference’s largest audience in its five-year history despite this being the first year CO-OP charged a (nominal) fee to attendees. Several of CO-OP’s business partners chipped in as well.
(CO-OP CEO Stan Hollen discusses the evolution of THINK over the past five years in this video.)
But organizers must have had the same idea about taking the message home and last year implemented THINK It Out sessions. Following a couple of speaker presentations, some credit union industry folks would join the speakers in a panel, moderated by emcee Valerie Coleman Morris, a financial journalist formerly with CNN, to discuss exactly how what attendees just heard could apply to credit unions.
I had the opportunity to participate in one of these THINK It Out panels with well-known guitarist and national security consultant Jeff Baxter and Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s and “Moneyball” fame.
Beane was a so-so ball player, admitting his team paid him too much based on his performance. That was because scouts worked off of what was perceived to be important stats and gut instinct. Under Beane’s management of the Oakland A’s, of which the payroll budget has basically held steady since 1997, the team became not only profitable but also a regular in the post-season.
How? Beane won the money game because he bucked conventional wisdom and looked at different stats. Home runs hitters didn’t always produce the return on investment that hitters who merely got on base did. In the baseball draft, only a small percentage of high school kids recruited ever made it to the majors, so he quit wasting the picks. Credit unions can apply this lesson in a number of ways from credit scores to marketing investment.
What Baxter brought to national security was creativity and an outsider’s perspective. He was invited to play the bad guy in a war game against the U.S., which he had never done before–and won. He took out the ranking officer on the mission by using Photoshop to send “disfigured” pictures of participants to their spouses. A colonel was so outraged, he actually took a swing at Baxter and at that point the officer was out.
Though breaking a bit out of their shell, credit unions tend to be an insular industry, and it would do many good to get a fresh outside perspective, either from a consultant or strategically reserving certain positions for hiring outsiders.
Baxter’s war game went on, and he turned the oil in the Middle Eastern country he was representing into something akin to chocolate pudding. At that point, the Japanese threatened to pull out of U.S. Treasuries. and the game was over.
The lesson: Find your opponents’ Achilles heel. For credit unions, the opponents are banks, and their weakness is consumers’ angst over fees and profit over people. A perfect opportunity for credit unions to capitalize—save one thing.
While consumer awareness of credit unions is nudging upward, it’s still dismal. THINK hosted three participants from a previously held focus group regarding financial institutions. The focus group repeatedly found that consumers didn’t know what credit unions were or where they are located. It also came out with statements like, “There is a credit union branch a little close to my house, but it always looks a little seedy to me.”
Yet credit unions, instead of cooperating on a national brand, toil away on their own relatively small efforts. Not even entire states can get it 100% together. Other cooperatives have been successful such as ACE Hardware or the “Got Milk?” campaign. What’s holding credit unions back?
Let me digress to another comment from Beane’s discussion. No one paid attention to what the A’s were doing until the Boston Red Sox started adopting it. Once the bigger team gave the idea the nod, others started to, too.
As THINK presenter Neil Goldman, senior partner of Goldman Consulting and Strategy, pointed out, even something as simple as a symbol that every credit union displays as part of its signage could help awareness. "If you're not even in the consideration set, the value you present is irrelevant," he stated.
In some areas of the south, liquor stores are identified by a large red dot everyone knows what that symbol means.
THINK comprised too many great sessions to mention, from ESPN’s Chris Berman on starting out small but reaching for the stars to former CEO of Trader Joe’s Doug Rauch and Gilt Groupe founding CEO Alexis Maybank on creating a cult brand. Credit unions are a small part of the financial services arena as a whole, but collectively they’re they size of a very large bank, so they can be the big guys—the Red Sox. And maybe then people will pay attention. Credit unions already have the trust of the members they have, but will they come together to build the cult brand?