As Cooperative Advertising Dies … What’s the Big Idea?!

Seemingly, it’s a never ending debate: should credit unions embark on a national branding campaign using television, radio, print and other mediums? These conversations come up quite often in credit union circles, yet at the end of the day the topic is much akin to conversations about the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

If our experience here in NC last year with cooperative advertising is any indication of the problems encountered with launching these campaigns, it’s no wonder we can’t seem to get things going on the national level.

Last year, the League worked with about ten Charlotte-area credit unions to devise a cooperative advertising campaign to air on a local television station. A small, committed group of folks came together and we came tantalizingly close to getting the thing off the ground.

So what happened? Essentially, our experience was that it’s hard to build consensus on a variety of issues. In particular, our differences focused on two areas: the message, and the funding formula.

In the case of the message, some credit unions thought the message should revolve around our philosophy (we’re different), while others felt we should hammer home the product/convenience message (we’re different, but darnit if we aren’t convenient and modern institutions at the same time).

The funding formula was also an area of contention. Who should pay what? Should the folks who pay more get more perks than the folks who pay a little (in real if not relative dollars)?

Ultimately the lack of support for the message we chose and the funding formula (to a lesser extent) doomed our venture to fail. After months of effort by a lot of people, seeing nothing come of it was a bitter pill to swallow.

This experience points out some real problems with entering the advertising arena cooperatively. All the points of contention that happened in the Charlotte attempt happened for very legitimate reasons. Credit unions that are going to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars want to make sure the message that is delivered is one that is both comfortable and complimentary to their business objectives. I can’t say I blame them, really.

In the wake of our experiences in Charlotte last year, my thoughts on the subject are starting to evolve away from cooperative advertising campaigns to a new concept to raise attention and awareness: The Big Idea.

Recently, I got an email from American Express announcing the Member’s Project. For each AMEX cardholder who registers for the Member’s Project, the company will contribute one dollar, with up to $5 million to be contributed. The users of the Member’s Project will suggest and interactively discuss ideas over the summer about how to make the world a better place. In the end, the $5 million will be used to tackle the one issue the users identify as the one they would like to help solve.

I’ll let you ponder the benefits of having up to five million people discussing solving a world problem while thinking, “Gee, isn’t AMEX a great company for doing this?!”

The Member’s Project is an example of a Big Idea, and I’m sure you’ve seen other such concepts.

So what if credit unions stopped fretting about the lack of a national or statewide advertising campaign — and instead came up with a Big Idea that would generate a lot of attention?

In NC, there are about 2.8 million credit union members. What if they were approached about a Big Idea? What could credit union members accomplish cooperatively, and how much attention would it generate in the media statewide? More importantly, how much good will would it foster among members and credit unions?

The Member’s Project offers a glimpse into a Big Idea and for purposes of our discussion, I’ll throw out an example of a Big Idea for NC – what if we had a charity bike ride from Murphy to Manteo (that’s what – 600 miles?) over about a week’s time, committed to raising a BIG sum of money (say $1 million for starters) and contributed that money to a NC-specific cause?

Audacious? Yep. Hard? Very. Worthwhile? Absolutely! Think of all the positive PR and good will credit unions would garner by doing what we already know how to do – come together for a cause greater than ourselves.

The Big Idea “process” asks us to start at our shared values and asks us to work together to accomplish big goals that help people. The cooperative advertising process asks us to work through some profound differences to arrive at a message that will do one thing (and perhaps nothing else): transfer huge sums of capital to big media and ad agencies.

Which process sounds more worthwhile and fun to you?

On the national front, there are 88 million or so credit union members. WOW – what could that kind of human capital accomplish?!

So I challenge you to think of a Big Idea for NC, or perhaps the national credit union movement. Feel free to suggest Big Ideas by posting a comment, or suggest another concept you’d like to see credit unions try.

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6 Responses

  1. Jeff,

    I love the Big Idea. It beats the pants off the cooperative advertising concept for all the reasons you mention about who pays what and what is said–plus it cuts through the clutter of all the financial services advertising that’s already out there anyway. A Big Idea like this would essentially demonstrate what CUs are all about without having to explain “the difference” we are always working so hard at defining. I see this as a national program for the scale factor (with its resulting national PR implications) with each state perhaps deciding how “its” money would be used as a way to capture local interest. Can’t wait to hear how the other voices on the CU blogging circuit will weigh in!

  2. Full-frontal cooperative advertising concept nudity? YUCK! 🙂

    I presented a scholarship to a high school student in Lenoir, NC last week and gave a speech about one of the founding principles of the credit union movement – mutual self-help. Working together to help ourselves…what a concept! Very Horatio Alger!

    The angle we have always seemed to take is that “hey, we’re a CU – we’re doing good things for you!” Many people out there don’t want charity. They want to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Feel smart. Outwit contemporaries.

    Better than helping to pay for an obese person’s gastric bypass surgery, is a story about helping the same overweight person learn to manage food intake, physical activity, and motivation to be healthy.

    (Financial literacy education initiatives are coming to mind…)

    Let’s face it. We can never be THE BEST at throwing money on a community service project (think Bill Gates Foundation). If it’s worth doing, it’s worth being the best at it, so why not find that thing, that “big idea” that highlights our founding principles while clearly establishing the credit union industry as the indisputable leader of that principle in action.

    [ The Credit Union Warrior becomes silent as no idea comes along…I feel like I’m in Congress – all principle and no action 🙂 ]

  3. My “Big idea” is to develop a CU only site dedicated to beating Bankrate or Lendingtree by offerring access to each and every participating cu’s rates that the applicant qualifies for membership in. Not very well phrased but a great idea IMHO.

  4. Great post!

    You pick up on something I have observed as I speak to CU groups and management teams – the poverty of ideas.

    And with the absence of compelling and remarkable ideas driving the CU world forward, they turn to tactical actions of limited impact like coop advertising.

    This post is very encouraging to me. I believe in the historic CU movement and what it stood for.

    Keep creating…BIG ideas,
    Mike

  5. Great Post…very compelling point.

  6. Hi everyone –

    Thank you so much for your feedback on the Big Idea! Glad to hear that this could be something we might talk a little more about.

    I wonder what we might do on a national scale – build a ginormous scholarship fund for working families? Work with the Second Harvest Food Bank to ensure that no one goes hungry during the holidays?

    Millions of credit unions could really make a huge impact!

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