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SAN DIEGO — Now here’s a doggone-good branding success story, and the $700 million USA Federal Credit Union gets to tell all about it: a surge in checking accounts, a huge-pardon the expression-spike in recreation loans and lastly, a cult-like following among young people.“It really has been something sensational for us these last few months,” said Mary Cunningham, president/CEO, in recounting the success of Spike the bulldog, a quirky, loveable character that has been showing a few sharp anti-bank fangs in direct mail, online, e-mail and now in the branches.The marketing excitement of Spike, who has been appearing all over USA FCU promotions for the last six months, comes even as managers at USA FCU and other southern California CUs struggle with balance sheet pain amid the economic gloom.“It’s unfortunate that we are a victim of geography and just like my California brethren, we have the same stuff on our books-the HELOCs, the mortgages, the delinquencies, and so we are all trying to cope,” lamented Cunningham, whose CU had a $4 million loss in 2008.But that has not stopped USA FCU, whose public name has been shortened under the rebranding to USA Fed and has adopted a new tagline, “180? from banking” in addition to Spike and encouraging nonmembers to try new CU products.The new USA Fed spokesdog has been used in promotions with off-beat names, like “Spike’s Toy Loan Campaign” on RVs, motorcycles and ATVs, plus “Spike’s Skip-The-Pin & Win Sweepstakes,” plugging checking accounts and debit reward cards.“Our goal was to open 2,000 new checking accounts and lower our average new member age, and so far we are 9% above our goal with 2,165 checking accounts with an average balance of $1,200 and $2.6 million in deposits,” said Todd Kern, vice president of marketing and the architect of the rebranding campaign launched in 2007 with the help of Seattle-based Weber Marketing Group.The average new member age for USA Fed checking in 2008 dropped to 35.9, a big improvement over the 43 in 2007, said Kern, noting also that the net 1,361 total new checking accounts for 2008 “versus the 230 opened in 2007 was a 670% increase.”And 698 of the accounts were opened in the fourth quarter “when the branding really took off” and which followed a series of creative meetings with staff, called brand camp to generate a buy-in from the employees, said Kern.The former vice president of a Beverly Hills music publishing firm who joined USA Fed in 2007, Kern is particularly proud of the CU’s accomplishment in turning around the San Diego CU’s previous marketing approach built around “family, interracial imagery pitch that did not differentiate itself at all from the marketplace.” The former USA Fed tagline was “Get There, Start Here.”Cunningham credited Weber Marketing and Kern for “bringing a fresh, youthful, almost edgy approach to our marketing, which was something we never had.”She initially wasn’t too sure about hiring Kern, who lacked experience in financial marketing, but she admitted “boy, was I wrong,” while other staffers praised Cunningham for a willingness “to take chances,” as one top executive put it.Kern, who previously owned a small marketing agency, maintains he was thrilled to get the job since he saw early on the potential for “a revamp and a chance to turn around a marketing department in disarray” by altering the notion of marketing as just an expense to become part of a corporate culture.He is now proud of the fact that he has helped to lower the average new member age to 35.9 compared to 53 five years ago.Kern maintained the new “180? from banking” tagline, coupled with a new brand position of “Friends, Fun & Money,” has proven appealing. He explained, “Our original concept was to utilize the bulldog in a way reminiscent of Snoopy and his gang giving a family focus with fun and some attitude.”Recounting Spike’s loan success, Kern said that the toy loan campaign generated $4.3 million in loans, exceeded the $2.5 million goal by 170% and bringing in “822 new members topping our goal by 219%.”What tree will Spike be barking up in 2009?“Well, we’ve got a ‘street team’ campaign under way with that Red Bull energy drink. We’ve got the co-op awareness ads with NBC and we’re working on nontraditional media but we can’t talk about any of that now,” laughed Rob Folsom, senior vice president/chief strategy officer. “You better just give us a call back some time soon.”–[email protected]

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