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OMAHA, Neb. – It’s a stretch to call it a “saturation” media blitz, but Omaha and Lincoln credit unions – many of them holding community charters – are getting the message out loud and clear this spring about their emerging place in the marketplace. For months now, the largest CUs in the state working separately have blanketed local TV and radio airwaves as well as utilized print and direct mail to “educate the public on credit union strengths” as part of individual image and product campaigns. Seen as dominating the ad blitz has been the $305 million Centris FCU, the state’s largest, which has caught the most attention with a highly praised “water pool” TV commercial. But the Omaha CU recently kicked off an extraordinary member mailing of 33,000 postcards aimed at promoting a 2.9% rate on auto loans. The distribution of the “pull-tab” postcards followed an earlier mailing of 18,000 cards to non-members as part of a Centris promotion to make Omahans aware of the CU’s community reach into four counties in Iowa and Nebraska and opening of five new offices in the last two-and-a-half years. The popular 30-second Centris ad shows waterfalls, waves and rivers in imagery depicting the growth of the CU from a “water droplet” into a surging and crashing ocean “of financial strength” serving metropolitan Omaha. Research conducted last year by Centris showed that Nebraska and Iowa consumers “viewed credit unions as being small players in the financial arena compared to the banking conglomerates,” explained Cathy Madsen, vice president of marketing and business development. Its “water pool” campaign, she said, was aimed at showing that Centris has grown “into a powerful force that can serve all needs.” Meanwhile, the $281 million SAC FCU of Omaha, which first hit the airwaves in August 2003 with radio remotes and billboards, was to begin a new TV ad spot later this month promoting a new Council Bluffs branch opening in August. “Look, we never stop marketing our quality products and services, and ever since we received our community charter we’ve worked hard at demonstrating that we vigorously support community activities wherever we put in a branch,” declared James Guretzky, president/CEO of SAC FCU. That has meant joining and supporting chamber and military groups as well as school organizations, he said. “Our philosophy is a little different from Centris in that we work especially hard at becoming visible in each community we serve, but I guess you could say we steer away from any shotgun blast of advertising,” said Jackie Boryca, vice president of marketing. But Boryca admits that “the money Centris has been spending helps us all” by giving the industry the higher profile it needs to compete against banks. Indeed, the improved CU image has extended to the state’s capital city, Lincoln, where smaller CUs have witnessed positive public feedback from members and non-members who have seen the Centris ads on cable TV. “I think that the Centris water ad is pretty neat and I only wished we had thought of it here,” said Kenneth Bradshaw, president/CEO of Liberty First CU in Lincoln and also chairman of the Nebraska Credit Union League. Bradshaw acknowledged that Omaha and Lincoln have a high percentage of community charters – eight in Omaha and two in Lincoln – but he agreed there seems to be room for all to compete. Regarding the Centris ads, Bradshaw contends they are useful to his CU since they “visually show what the core basis of a credit union really is and that does us a lot of good.” Liberty First, a community CU, has been advertising on the TV, radio and newspapers, but “Centris has a lot more money to spend,” said Bradshaw. Donald Mahan, president/CEO of Centris, said the price tag for image and product advertising in 2003 ran to $800,000 with about the same amount anticipated in 2004. Centris’ goal, he said, is to expand “our demographic presence” across Nebraska and in far western Iowa. Centris was the first CU to receive a community charter for the four counties that encompass the largest population base. The counties include: Douglas, Sarpy, Pottawattamie and Lincoln counties. Mahan says his CU “is engaged in a targeted marketing program” and is following suggestions of the Raddon Financial Group of Chicago which does marketing and MCIF database strategy for some 600 CUs across the U.S. “I think we are the marketing poster child for Raddon, ” quipped Mahan. Centris has been a client of the Raddon firm since 1994 as a member of its “ CEO Strategies Group.” Madsen, the marketing vice president for Centris, said the CU’s target marketing campaign consists of two to three mailings per month, based upon demographics, profitability, consumer segment and “next best” cross sell. Underscoring the interest in community charters, Mutual 1st FCU of Omaha received its NCUA charter in March and has now begun a series of TV/radio ads “aimed at strengthening our name recognition.” The ads also announce the opening of a $5 million new headquarters building and branch while also promoting the introduction of business loans. Mark Uden, president/CEO of the $90 million CU which until 1996 was a single sponsor CU for employees of Mutual of Omaha, the Nebraska insurer, said its marketing survey taken last year also showed a negative image of CUs by the public. Indeed, 40% of the survey respondents “would definitely not do business with a credit union” and the “scary” part is that the numbers went up for those in older brackets, he said. Based on survey conclusions, Mutual 1st has dropped “credit union” in the TV ads but retains the word “federal” since that word conveys “strength and security,” he said. Newspaper and direct mail ads do contain the CU nomenclature, he said. And then there is Lincoln Goodyear Employees CU, also fresh with a community charter which is planning an ad campaign “some time in the third quarter.” Its ad campaign will promote a name change, said Jerry Barnett, president/CEO of the $38 million CU, with the name still to be selected. Barnett warned other community CUs to prepare for extra expense and a long lead time while lawyers search the Internet for trademark duplications. “We’re on our second law firm now which has undertaken for us a thorough worldwide Web search,” said Barnett. The first law firm “was not as aggressive as we needed to be.” Lincoln Goodyear, which got its community charter a year ago, has a membership base of 6,900 and was a former single sponsor for a large plant here of the Akron, Ohio tire manufacturer. -

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