PORTLAND, Ore. — “Know thyself” could be the most valuable lesson for credit unions.

Jeff Stephens, CEO of local full service branding firm Creative Brand Communication says what differentiates each credit union from their competition is how they live their story.

“It is more than credit unions just telling their story,” said Stephens. “You have to prove your story to members and a lot of it is about human interaction. If you think about all the things that create an experience, if you can find a way to individualize even the most mundane task it will resonate with members.”

He adds that given the increasingly competitive landscape differentiation is more important than ever.

“What happens is that everyone essentially says the same things–bankers and credit unions talk about the community and how their service sets them apart–it starts to all blend together for consumers,” said Stephens. “So start also demonstrating the difference not only in big gestures but interesting little ways too. Make the experience more meaningful instead of just using the same words.”

Stephens adds that the key is for credit unions to be realistic and have a real understanding of their identity and what they stand for.

“The term ‘re-branding’ is the equivalent of a lobotomy,” said Stephens. “You can’t be someone different than you were yesterday but you can tell your story more effectively and highlight who you are by creating experiences that are aligned with your brand. It is about freeing the credit union’s identity more than changing who they are.”

CBC recently took its own advice and has strategically re-launched its brand.

“We realized that we needed to take our own medicine and be more cognizant of proving our own story so that all our touchpoints add up to who we are and what clients should know about us,” said Stephens. “Honestly having gone through it ourselves it is easier said than done but it is worth it. More than just looking great everything now better speaks to our brand.”

Stephens, who was part of the Umqua Bank marketing team responsible for creating the bank’s signature “retail outlets,” founded CBC in 2003 as a full service agency focused on building experiential brands for financial companies.

“To us brands are experienced and should engage all five senses–touch, taste, sight, sound and smell,” said Stephens. “We believe everything shapes experiences so you have to go beyond the confines of traditional marketing to ensure each interaction between the credit union and member creates a positive powerful experience that members automatically attribute to the credit union.”

To that end CBC takes a holistic approach to branding and looks at everything from marketing and human resources, to facilities, operations and communications.

Stephens says it may not be the right fit for every credit union since developing and sustaining a strong experiential brand is a long term company-wide commitment–not a single marketing project. So credit unions have to be in it for the long haul.

He adds that since there are so many elements that make up an experience, experiential tactics are generally more cost effective.

“You could spend $1,000 on an ad in the newspaper that 10,000 people see but with most print ads no one really pays attention,” said Stephens. “But if you create a memorable experience, whether it is presenting members their receipt on a tray or how you answer the phone, even if it is to a smaller number of people that lasting positive impression makes a bigger impact than any ad.”

Stephens says that doesn’t mean credit unions should forget about marketing, but rather should look for ways to reinforce the brand. From everyday actions to even the music playing in the branches–attention to daily details will go a long way to ensuring the message goes beyond just a brochure to living the CU story.

Stephens says today’s CBC is a better articulation of its unique approach to branding and its credit union clients range from $90 million in assets to nearly $1 billion in assets.

As part of its growth, CBC recently added Casey Boggs and Jesse Villanueva as vice president and public relations director, and brand strategist, respectively.

Prior to joining CBC, Boggs was director of public relations at AIG Retirement Services, Inc. He brings over ten years of extensive communications experience to CBC with specific expertise in media relations, marketing strategy, crisis communications, internal communications, advertising, corporate imaging, positioning and thought leadership.

A former Umpqua Bank assistant creative director, Villanueva contributed to the expansion of the bank’s internationally recognized brand through the development of a wide variety of brand-centered initiatives, from merchandising to environments to Web-based tools and marketing communications. He will be primarily responsible for the development and implementation of unique experiential brand strategies for CBC’s clients.

“Branding is not about spending on a large budget. It boils down to three steps–figuring out what your story is, how to tell it and finally most importantly how to prove/live that story everyday,” said Stephens. “Michelangelo said he’d look at a piece of marble, see the person inside and set them free–the same philosophy applies to credit unions. They each have their unique story it is just a matter of uncovering who they really are and living or proving that story.” –mdigiovanni@cutimes.com