DES MOINES, Iowa — CUNA’s “Little Guy” is getting legs beyond the Capitol Beltway.

Indeed, the animated cartoon character debuted a year ago to convey the industry’s common “working man” image to federal lawmakers as part of the CURIA battle with banks is morphing into a slightly new icon in some locales.

First, there is the launch last week of a customized Little Guy radio, newspaper, and billboard campaign by the Iowa Credit Union League to coincide with Monday’s opening of the state legislature.

And next is the decision, also last week, by the North Carolina Credit Union League to expand its “Team Little Guy” racing team by fielding three squads of t-shirted runners to race in the state’s two-day Blue Ridge Relay Charity event next September as well as the CU-sponsored Cherry Blossom 10K Run April 6.

“We simply found a very good response from the public to our version of ‘Little Guy’ branding last year for fundraising and so we want to do it again and see where it takes us,” said a spokesman for the league and the Carolinas Credit Union Foundation.

The Minnesota Credit Union Network, meanwhile, mailed out “Little Guy” greeting cards to both state and federal lawmakers over the Christmas holiday, while separately the New York State Credit Union League also started using the Little Guy on its letterhead to legislators.

In Iowa, the Little Guy character was seen by thousands of presidential campaign staffers, news crews, and the Iowa Caucus goers Jan. 3 as they drove by the first Little Guy billboard which went up New Year’s Day on Interstate 235 in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.

While applauding the expansion of the Little Guy by state leagues, CUNA officials maintain “it is not a national brand.”

“The Little Guy was developed by CUNA to serve as a symbol for Capitol Hill of those whom credit unions serve–their members,” a statement read. “His appearance on the national scene was not intended as either the focus or portion of a branding campaign.”

But, CUNA said, “if leagues see value when using the Little Guy for advocacy purposes” or in a public setting that is a “natural outgrowth of this program,” and may “change the conversation” so that lawmakers–specifically Congress and state lawmakers–understand who it is that credit unions really serve.”

If leagues chose to become “creative and innovative” with the Little Guy, that would be welcome, according to the trade association.

Meanwhile, the Iowa league said apart from its interstate billboard, its first Little Guy radio ads as part of a January-to-April campaign began running last week on four Iowa stations.

And Des Moines area CUs were putting up the four-foot cartoon cutout versions in branch lobbies.

“We’re all excited about using the Little Guy as part of a broadened campaign aimed at Iowa legislators and designed to stress that credit unions identify with working men and women,” declared Pat Drennen, chairman of the Iowa Credit Union League.

Drennen, president/CEO of 1st Gateway CU of Comanche, said he found CUNA’s Little Guy campaign, which got its start last January, quite humorous, adding “we think will resonate well with our legislators.”

Making use of CUNA branding materials, Drennen said his CU has already ordered print cutouts of the “Little Guy” characters to appear in the CU’s four branch lobbies starting in February.

Iowa league officials said they have also ordered the cutouts for distribution to legislators during chapter lobbying visits to the capitol starting this month.

“We have also purchased a four-foot Little Guy that we will be using at our Legislative and Critical Issues Conference in February where we always invite state legislators to a reception after the first day of the conference,” said Emily Oliver, the league’s public affairs specialist who is coordinating the overall campaign which also includes direct mail.

For the Iowa League, the new Little Guy campaign replaces one in existence for years called “Keeping America’s Dream Alive,” which officials felt needed revamping.

Following the CUNA model, Oliver said photos of legislators “with the Little Guy” will be taken along with distribution of the lobby posters to participating CUs.

The initial “Little Guy” message on the I-235 billboard, she noted, hits on the theme of CUs “Helping The Little Guy” with new language going up in February about CUs “treating people like they own the place–they do.”

The radio ads including both 60 and 15-second spots began airing on the stations three times a day, Monday through Thursday. The league said it anticipates no increase in its advocacy budget this year as a result of the campaign; costs might even be less since it is using its own in-house creative staff and CUNA materials.

Apart from Iowa and the handful of state leagues using the Little Guy, the character remains online on YouTube promoting business loans. There the CUNA message has been to contrast CUs with banks, which deny loans to “the everyman.”

But some marketers contend privately such an approach could backfire. One West Coast marketing representative, who declined to be identified, argued that CUNA was simply “fueling a new product category for its constituents rather than focusing on the historical strengths of credit unions.”

“If CUNA hoped to embolden the defense against CU taxation with this video,” it may have made a mistake, said the marketer. “The banks can point to that video and say, ‘see, they offer business loans, just like us. It doesn’t matter that they offer them to puny, little businesses. They are fundamentally banks, and should be taxed as such.”

The video, he said, could have been made to communicate the CU community role “without attacking banks’ sweet spot: business lending.”

In response, a CUNA spokesman said such a scenario is possible but off-base with what it was trying to accomplish.

“The fact that credit unions not only are doing business loans but want the flexibility to do more should they choose is no secret to anyone,” said the spokesman. “Further, the video drives home the point the credit union business lending is done differently than banks in that credit union business lending focuses on relatively small loans for small businesses.”

At mid-year 2007, according to CUNA, “there were 2,026 credit unions (24% of all CUs) offering business loans to their members, for a total of $26 billion. The average loan size was $163,600. Banks, at the same time, held $2.9 trillion in business loans, covering 99.12% of the business lending market. CUs held 0.88% of the market.”

On the broader Little Guy campaign, meanwhile, the Washington State Credit Union League is expected to touch on the “Little Guy” promotions this week during its annual legislative conference in Olympia, which opens Thursday with a featured talk by Washington DC grassroots consultant Joel Blackwell.

“I’ve worked with credit unions on H.R. 1151 as well as over the years and I think Little Guy is brilliant representing real sophistication in industry lobbying and its battle for survival,” said Blackwell. At the same time, he says, CUs individually have much work to do “in really convincing policymakers that they make a difference” in the public arena.

–jrubenscut@aol.com