WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Call it the year of expansion. Marketing departments gained more respect as new competitors entered the financial services playing field, EFT networks grew and new players joined the credit card portfolio game. It really has been a year of exploring new territory and setting new boundaries. On the EFT front, with 12,000 ATMs available in 49 states, the CO-OP Network came even closer to achieving its vision of a national credit union surcharge-free ATM network through an agreement with Access Cash and the acquisition of Midwest ATM Company. Also building its own national dream, the three shared branching networks Credit Union Service Corporation, Service Centers Corporation and Financial Service Centers Cooperative, Inc. joined forces this year to form the nationwide shared branching network CU Service Centers Network Inc. Big changes in the marketplace found credit unions unable to position themselves as just the “price leaders” so marketing departments shifted from the sidelines to being major players this year. Still leading in service, the challenge became to further develop the loyalty factor by emphasizing CU convenience and community involvement. In addition, CUs stepped up efforts to reach out to younger members through youth clubs, offering youth debit cards, opening high school branches and conducting personal finance classes. This year’s marketing departments have even been viewed as potential CEO breeding grounds. From the Hispanic boom to the never ending quest for the right brand, credit union marketers were tapped for more than just promotions and boosting employee morale. Working together with management marketers increased the public’s awareness of CUs through such unique opportunities as participating in parades, inking baseball team/field sponsorship deals and even housing a Doppler radar. With branding as the 2001 buzzword, some say the jury is still out as far as the effectiveness of the national CUNA brand campaign. While expanding its offerings into radio and the Hispanic market, there have been a few grumblings from credit unions that the ads are too general and that they would prefer pushing their own brand over a national one. On the flip side, many leagues have said member responses were great when using the CUNA brand as part of their own campaign. Only time will tell if further tweaking is needed. But nothing sparked more controversy this year than the credit card portfolio shuffle. When credit card giant MBNA America pulled up a seat this year next to AssetExchange and InfiCorp to be dealt into the credit union credit card portfolio game, it shook up many in CU-land. Let’s face it, for better or worse, there is a lot of interest in selling CU credit card portfolios, and everyone is weighing in on whether CUs are short-sightedly selling an important relationship or are really looking ahead by offering members more services without the maintenance responsibilities. In the high stakes credit card portfolio game CU card services providers like PSCU, CSCU and TNB quickly upped the ante by developing programs to not only help CUs better evaluate their portfolios and but even tossed their chips in as a buyer alternative. If more CUs continue to sell their portfolio, it should get interesting as to which buyers will don the black or white hat. Or will it boil down to whether to do business with the “family” or “outsiders”? -mbourjolly@cutimes.com