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SAN DIEGO — As members face a new era of unprecedented household debt and economic uncertainty, will the credit union marketing message change as a result?Attitudes toward debt, shaped in part by advertising, share some of the blame for the current mortgage crisis, said Robert Manning, director of the center for consumer financial services at Rochester Institute of Technology. Manning told California and Nevada Credit Union League members at their Nov. 7 annual meeting that Americans no longer consider credit a privilege. Instead, the Credit Card Nation author said, it’s considered an entitlement, and advertising for credit cards and other credit vehicles support that attitude.But now, tighter underwriting and liquidity and lowered consumer confidence are shifting both supply and demand away from lending, already forcing marketing professionals to switch their focus to deposit products. But will debt-entitled Americans embrace the old-fashioned credit union mantra of thrift?Patricia Kaye is principal at the Vivid Group, a Burbank, Calif.-based advertising agency specializing in credit unions since 1981. Kaye agreed that American consumers are looking for a new message, but said successful marketing campaigns will have to sweeten the deal when it comes to thrift.“Consumers are not accustomed to taking their financial medicine, and they will avoid any approaches to that effect,” Kaye said. “They don’t want cod liver oil; they want flavored vitamins, or better yet, an organic fruit smoothie.”She suggested that financial cooperatives teach members how to trim their household budgets rather than ordering them to do so.“We may very well have to tighten our belts, but newsletter articles could demonstrate it in a fun way, like how to involve the entire family in a garden project to save on groceries,” she said.Philip Heckman, director of youth programs at CUNA’s Center for Personal Finance, said credit unions never stopped teaching and preaching thrift, though the word itself may be outdated. These days, Heckman said, thrift is called financial literacy. He said his organization’s Thrive By 5 program, which provides age-appropriate money education for preschoolers, intentionally played on the word thrift.“The idea there is that these basic money values have power long before kids get to school,” Heckman said. “Kindergarteners already have a couple years of consumerism under their belts, and for parents, the program includes some self reflection regarding the message they convey to their kids regarding money. Not just what they say but also the spending choices they make in front of their children. Children are a great pathway to educating adults,” he said.“Adults are very reluctant to admit ignorance, but it’s easy to acknowledge kids are ignorant because kids are naturally na?ve,” he said. “So, parents take responsibility for their children’s’ financial education, they’ll simultaneously, and automatically, learn themselves.”Scott Coe, chair-elect of the Marketing Association of Credit Unions, is also senior vice president of marketing at the $631 million CoastHills Federal Credit Union. Coe said the ability to educate members and help them successfully adjust to new economic realities will become part of the credit union brand.“What we’re facing is very real, and we have to make lifestyle and spending changes,” Coe said, “and the baby boomers as a group are the mother of all consumers. We love to spend and we hate to save, but we can’t continue to rely upon credit as it grows tighter and we grow older. That’s the message credit unions need to build into our marketing. We can still be aggressive and market what we do, which is still to make loans. But we can balance our message between being aggressive and growing our business, but also educating our members, as well.”Jeffry Pilcher, financial brand strategist and publisher of the online publication The Financial Brand (http://thefinancialbrand.com), said a new Bank of America advertising campaign entitled “Pancakes” is a great example of the new message of hope that may emerge from the nation’s retail financial sector.The ad’s script begins, “No matter how long the night has been there’s always breakfast. This is America. The sun comes up and we get a fresh start.”“It sends a message about the economy that Americans want to hear,” Pilcher said, “that things will be okay and we’ll get through this.”Kaye agreed, saying that the successful campaign of President-elect Barack Obama is proof that Americans are receptive to messages of hope when it comes to their futures. And, she said, they don’t want negativity, either.”–[email protected]

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