Should credit unions lean into their perception “problem”?
In the 2021 Netflix film “Army of Thieves”, bank teller and safecracking enthusiast Sebastian is enlisted by a gang of would be robbers to assist with three heists, each involving an elaborate safe, and each more difficult to carry out than the last. On the cusp of his first-ever foray into criminal enterprise, Sebastian panics:
Korina: What the hell’s wrong with him? Why is he freaking out?
Sebastian: Perhaps because we’re about to do the robbing of a bank.
Korina: It’s not a bank, it’s a credit union.
Sebastian: What’s the difference?
Korina: It’s a bank for children.
Sebastian: Why would there be a bank specifically for kids?
Gwendoline: Okay, she means it’s child’s play.
If you’re anything like me, you responded to this exchange with (hopefully faux) outrage and then a chuckle. But underlying this humorous dialog is a very real perception problem credit unions have been attempting to address for years. The idea that the only real difference between banks and credit unions is that credit unions don’t have the same chops.
“Alright, this isn’t a credit union anymore; this is the real deal,” says Brad Cage in the film as they prepare for their second job. (Spoiler alert: they succeeded in robbing the credit union with relative ease.) If Hollywood perceives the industry this way, does the rest of the country see it this way too?
According to Teresa Freeborn, then CEO and President of Xceed Financial Credit Union and board member of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), awareness isn’t the problem. She suggested that “98% of consumers know about credit unions and have a positive impression of them.” The actual problem, she continued, is that misperceptions exist regarding broad access to finances and surrounding limited eligibility.
It’s the former that might prove to be the thorn in credit unions’ sides. The perception that credit unions just won’t have the same products and services that big banks can offer. Of course, we know this isn’t necessarily true—many (but not all) credit unions offer much of what consumers have come to expect from their preferred financial institutions.
As Credit Karma describes the industry:
“Just because a credit union may be smaller than a bank doesn’t necessarily mean it has fewer services. In addition to financial education and counseling, credit unions often offer consumer loans, shared branches with other credit unions, electronic banking, ATMs, home equity loans, mortgage loans, car loans, member business loans, credit cards, overdraft protection and more.
Of course, some credit unions may not have as many products and services as other financial institutions, but they generally tend to cover a lot of banking needs.”
If consumers think credit unions lack the same quality products and services, how likely are they to think that credit unions offer the same level of security when it comes to safeguarding deposits and identity? The existence of numerous articles seeking to answer the question “are credit unions as safe as banks?” suggests this as yet another hurdle for the industry to overcome.
Thankfully, there are those out there, even those unaffiliated with credit unions, that are speaking up to bust these myths. As the popular personal finance personality Dave Ramsey informs his readers: “Cybersecurity is a hot topic these days, and rightfully so. You can’t walk through a crowded room without meeting someone who’s had their bank account hacked. . . No worries, though. Your money is equally safe in both credit unions and banks.”
In 2019, CUSO Mag Editor Emily Claus asked the question “Why aren’t credit unions robbed in movies?”. She writes, “if credit unions truly do have a lack of brand awareness, the film industry may not be the best medium through which to cultivate more. We want to be educating people on what makes credit unions different from banks and what’s great about them, and not focus on simply getting them on the big screen. The old phrase “all publicity is good publicity” does not apply here.”
Two years later, she may have proven this to be right. Hollywood may only be interested in perpetuating the stereotypes credit unions have to battle individually and as an industry.
If your instinct is to cry out in protest against such blatant misrepresentation, boycotting the film in anger, I propose a different solution. Re-shape the perception to our advantage. A “bank for children” you say? What better reason to start up new programs that promote financial education and positive financial experiences for young adults? I say lean into it.