CHULA VISTA, Calif. – While her start in credit unions may have been a fluke, North Island CU Executive Vice President of member relations Planning Geri Dillingham has always been drawn to marketing. “I took a marketing class my senior year of college and enjoyed the creativity and strategy of it so much that I got my MBA in it,” said Dillingham. “I just love what I’m doing so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else.” As for credit unions, Dillingham says she built a career in non-profits, and when she moved from Ann Arbor back to San Diego a chance interview at a credit union first introduced her to credit unions. Once she learned about the cooperative service and focus of the financial institution she was hooked. After getting her feet wet in credit unions, an opening at North Island CU some 16 years ago proved to be a perfect fit. “It has been such an incredible working environment due to our CEO Mike Maslek’s vision,” said Dillingham. “From the beginning marketing has been viewed as a strategic role in the credit union’s growth, and not only do we have a fabulous marketing team but Mike has empowered us with complete freedom creatively and strategically to help set the direction for the credit union.” The North Island CU marketing team also taps the strengths of four key advertising agencies that meet monthly and work interdepartmentally. Dillingham says with the outsourced relationships it adds a “virtual” dimension to the department. As a member of the “sandwich generation” Dillingham is the first in the office so that she can be home in time for her two boys ages 8 and 10 and her parents who also live with her and her husband. “It is funny. I’m 45 and on most weeknights my mom is still putting dinner on the table,” laughs Dillingham. “I’ve gone back to get my Masters in Finance so after dinner my sons and I are complaining about our homework, but it is great because it’s a good example that education should never stop and we all need to keep learning.” These days in addition to school and family trips across country via train, Dillingham and her husband are renovating their home to restore it to its original 1910 glory days. “It’s like the Golden Gate Bridge – there is always a renovation project in process,” said Dillingham. “When you live in a constant state of having contractors in your house it’s taught the kids a lesson in flexibility.” Despite her frenetic pace at home and at work, Dillingham says she loves to relax by whipping up meals ranging from Italian to Southwestern barbeque. “I just love to cook these huge gourmet meals. In fact when we remodeled the kitchen I had to have a six-burner gas range,” said Dillingham. “You know we work so hard every day that cooking for social occasions is just a great time to relax with friends.” Dillingham says building and establishing the North Island brand promise of making members’ financial lives “easy, worry-free and a little more fun” is at the forefront of future marketing plans. That promise carries over into every aspect from disclosures to operations and Dillingham says it is one of the hardest parts of the brand process. “A personal bias of mine is that when we do have an opportunity to share the credit union message that we take the high road and there is no need to get into negative campaigns,” said Dillingham. “Instead of attacking bankers in advertising, we use the space to promote our merits.” Dillingham says it is an exciting time to be a marketer as the role continues to evolve. Her hope is that more credit unions will see marketing as a strategic tool and hire accordingly. It is important since she says consumers generally believe all credit unions are one conglomerate. “Our biggest challenge is establishing a unique individual brand while still promoting the overall brand of credit unions,” said Dillingham. “Despite the awareness advances, overall consumers still don’t understand the credit union difference. There needs to be that global understanding that we’re different not because of our common bond but our governance and how we operate cooperatively-banks just don’t have it. There’s a tremendous amount of education that we as a whole still need to do.” -mdigiovanni@cutimes.com