To bash or not to bash banks?

It’s been a hotly debated issue that probably won’t be definitively resolved any time soon. 

For some credit unions, the decision to take a swipe at banks has been a no brainer. For many, the strategy of highlighting and riding the wave of negative national bank coverage has been viewed as a way to get consumers to finally make a switch and drum up some much needed loan business.

Last June, the $1.3 billion TruMark Financial Credit Union in Trevose, Pa. launched an edgy awareness campaign that poked a few strategic jabs at big banks. It honed in on consumers’ rising discontent with big banks at the time, in particular with the higher fees, what it saw as excessive bank executive compensation, closed credit card lines and rising credit card rates. 

Locally, with the Wells Fargo-Wachovia merger slated to be finalized by November 2010, the timing couldn’t have been better for the credit union.

“Months of research went into this and at that time, we thought what an opportunity to sway those disgruntled bank customers to open an account with us,” said Natalie Carlson, vice president of marketing at TruMark Financial. “Overall, we wanted an emotionally charged, more aggressive approach for the campaign and we tapped two great agencies that really brought it to life.”

The multimedia blitz included search engine banner ads, television and radio spots, billboards, ads on Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority buses and a microsite, www.trumark.com, designed to help consumers find a local branch and provided links to the latest local and national news articles and videos that talk up why credit unions are better. The site also included a “How Banks Betray Consumer Trust” section that featured the television spots.

According to Randi Marmer, assistant vice president community relations, the entire campaign was created to reinforce the benefits of switching to TruMark Financial: no hidden fees, competitive rates, and “superior service.” Three television commercials, which have since won some 15 marketing awards, touted TruMark Financial as the trusted source for consumers’ financial needs. They played on consumers’ sore spots by depicting the lifestyle enjoyed by big banks’ leadership at their customers’ expense. While each message was unique, the underlying thene was the same: “At TruMark Financial it’s about you. Your family. Your money. No bailouts. No greed. No hassles.”

“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and as far as building awareness, it was a success,” Carlson said.

Going into the campaign, the credit union had conducted pretest research that showed 16% of Philadelphia consumers knew about the financial institution, Carlson recalled. After the campaign, that percentage grew to 48% and a vast majority of the new members acquired during that time are still active, she noted.

“The commercials had people talking and what we found interesting is that all of a sudden there was a greater recognition. People who’d seen our signs before, were now more aware and making that connection with the commercials,” Carlson said. 

With a focus, like many credit unions are doing, on loans now, the popular commercials are no longer aired and marketing initiatives will highlight TruMark Financial’s rates and quick loan turnaround.

“With those commercials, I’m not sure that message is as relevant for us, at least today,” Carlson acknowledged. “It’s all about loans, loans, loans so in addition to traditional marketing channels we’ll be aggressively using social media as a delivery channel to reach over 2,500 current followers. We’re also working on development of a new website and more community focused efforts.”

One of those upcoming events is Kiss the Pig for Financial Literacy fundraiser, which is designed to support inner-city schools lacking the resources needed to teach students responsible personal finance. The credit union has partnered with The Philadelphia Foundation for the fundraiser where 17 business and community leaders, professionals, and teachers will compete for the privilege to kiss an actual pig.

“With a huge deficit in the overall state budget, Pennsylvania’s education funding has been slashed and this event will allow Philadelphia schools to provide students with the tools needed to make informed choices about how to save, spend, borrow, or invest money,” Marner said. “Without these programs, students may be left behind and become another statistic plagued with debt. We’re happy to help.”

You won’t find any bank bashing at Summit Credit Union. Incorporating an element of emphasizing the positive has been the approach at the $1.6 billion Madison, Wis.-based credit union.  

Amid the flurry of antibank campaigns in 2009, Summit CU took a different route and launched two initiatives: Pay it Forward and Project Money. Just last year it added a third initiative: the Do More team. Created as a way to further reinforce the brand position that Summit is about building relationships not selling products, the initiatives have also served as a way for members to experience the credit union’s values first hand.

“It’s important to us that we connect with members, communities and that we do things that make our members feel good about themselves, their community and Summit,” said Rebecca Gerothanas, senior vice president marketing/operations. “These programs do a good job of helping us connect with members and each other while delivering the positive message of offering encouragement to take action or be involved.”

According to Gerothanas, the idea for Pay It Forward came from a desire to plant some seeds of hope.

“We’re in our third year now, but that first year, it was at the beginning of the recession and there was a lot of fear,” Gerothanas said. “So we wanted to show the positive — that every individual can make a difference and it could even be done with $10.”

That idea of helping others to make a real change was also an underlying factor in Project Money.

“It’s been so successful and the credit goes to the people who are a part of it. The goal was to show a realistic path to improve finances. Rather than just tell people what should be done they can see how it’s done,” Gerothanas said. “We’re so lucky because the participants are the ones who make it real, and relatable, as they open their financial lives. As they make financial choices in real life situations, people that follow along are able to make connections to their own lives, so it benefits the greater community as well as the participants competing for the $10,000 prize.”

The Do More team was a way to showcase the credit union’s fun and unconventional personality by engaging in unexpected random acts with the simple goal of putting smiles on faces, Gerothanas explained. The team consists of some 20 Summit staffers who take turns planning, implementing and taping spontaneous events that have ranged from installing a Money Tree and handing out flowers to people at a local farmers market, to renting bicycles on the hottest day of the year, to delivering ice cream to people in downtown Madison.

“We just have a lot of fun with it and the intent, besides of course delighting people, is to have a meaningful impact on someone’s day,” Gerothanas said. “Our biggest challenge with these initiatives is really just keeping it fresh. I don’t think this is something that could just stand on its own and that’s why it’s just a complement to our overall marketing strategy. What it does, is show people, who we are, what we do and gives them a reason to feel good about choosing Summit beyond the strong value they get as members.”

She added that living its culture has been a vital part of why the initiatives have been embraced. It’s a small part of a bigger picture that has been consistent across all platforms including a recently revamped website that emphasizes social networking and the feature sections titled “Life,” “Community” and “Money.” In addition, a “Groups” section allows people to join with others sharing the same interests.

“It’s been something that’s born out of our culture and that’s why it’s resonating,” Gerothanas said. “It’s hard to say, because it is a complement to our other marketing efforts, if the initiatives solely helped with loan growth. We’ve had strong member growth in the past few years, strong financial performance, strong net promoter scores, but we also tell our story in other ways so it’s been just one of many factors in building membership.”