MANCHESTER, Mo. – Although a recent survey finds that banks are committed to building more branches, Charlene Stern, chief experience officer for design/build/branding firm NewGround says the time is now for credit unions to capitalize on “bankers’ marketing malaise.” “The current frenzy of branch-building is running ahead of some banks’ strategies for customer acquisition and retention,” said Stern. “They are so busy trying to play catch up since they realized they were wrong to cut back on branches in the `80s and `90s that many are just believing `if you build it they will come’-and that just doesn’t work. There is no end of opportunity for credit unions to build a retail message that really connects with their members.” Stern says credit unions may be surprised to learn that the retail message should not focus on CUs’ not-for-profit status or trying to “out-community” the competition because it can result in a generic “me-too” branding battle. “We’ve done so many focus groups across the country and the misperception among consumers that comes up over and over again is that if a financial institution is non-profit it is not sophisticated enough to handle today’s more complex needs,” said Stern. “It is an ideal that doesn’t hold up today as much as it did when credit unions were first founded. The majority of members hold jobs in profit making enterprises and they want to be reassured their credit union knows how to handle their money profitably and help them do it well. Credit unions are short changing members every day if the member doesn’t also know about its culture, the variety of services offered or that a better deal can be found at a credit union.” According to Stern, credit unions are the only provider in the marketplace that can claim they are unbiased because each member is essentially a “shareholder.” “Members don’t care that a credit union is not-for-profit; they want a financial institution that is an unbiased consumer advocate, that has a culture focused on what is best for the customer, and will help him or her have a better financial outcome,” said Stern. “The reality is that no matter how many branches banks build, if they don’t have that culture it won’t make a difference.” While studies show that branches are key to member acquisition and retention, many financial institutions are traditional in their retail strategy. For credit unions to stay ahead of the game there must be a viable retail culture in place or developed. Stern adds that before credit unions jump on the branch building bandwagon they should first assess their current culture and brand including their name, and make sure it effectively communicates in a very personal deep way how important the credit union can be to their members’ lives. In addition, employees cannot be reduced to just transactional “burger flippers” – they, like consumers, want to find meaning in their jobs. “Redefine your retail strategy before a shovel even hits the ground,” said Stern. “Branch expansion is difficult to align with brand expansion, and new spaces require brand and cultural consistency that reaches from the color of the walls to the first words out of the teller’s mouth. The interior must be designed to energize employees and members alike. It is about building on the synergy of that member’s first great experience in your branch.” -mdigiovanni@cutimes.com