Rebranding Your Credit Union: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Rebranding Your Credit Union: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

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The credit union landscape has changed substantially over the last eighty-plus years. Once, tens of thousands of credit unions stood, each serving a unique and specific population within their communities. As the industry has consolidated, those SEG-based credit unions became multi-SEG (to the chagrin of bankers).

With the quick passage of the Credit Union Membership Access Act in 1998 to counteract the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier that year, credit unions now had it signed into law that their field of membership (FOM) could allow for multiple common bonds. Now, only a couple thousand remain.

But this is not an article about mergers and consolidation. Rather, it is about the subsequent wave of rebranding that has arisen as a result of expanding fields of membership and credit unions moving from SEG-based charters to more inclusive community charters. After all, if your credit union is named after a local business or organization, how will those unaffiliated know they too can benefit?

Reasons to entertain a branding change

Sometimes changing the credit union’s name is a matter of more accurately reflecting an expanded charter. Among the examples you will read below is that of Bluestone Federal Credit Union, formerly known as Sioux Empire FCU. After an expansion of their FOM to include far more counties, they felt the prior name might create confusion in that expanded territory.

Others are a condition of merging credit unions who opt to re-form as a new entity rather than one more simply being absorbed into another. And other times it is simply a matter of refreshing the look and feel of the credit union to theoretically reflect the current environment and consumer expectations.

One example that encompasses many of these reasons is Pheple Federal Credit Union. Established in 1951 as Bellco Employees FCU, the credit union was formed to serve the needs of Bell of Pennsylvania Telephone Employees. When it transitioned to a community charter in 2004, it became Westmoreland Community FCU to reflect that broader community focus. A few years and mergers later, the credit union changed once more, this time to Pheple.

In their words: “Westmoreland Community” got us to where we are today, and Pheple is taking us to where we will be tomorrow. The name change was a big step toward our bright future. Pheple aids in the credit union’s growth. It allows us to welcome more people into our community. After all, we wanted something to accurately represent us. Who we are and what we stand for. People helping people. It’s as simple as that.”

Whatever your reasons for pursuing a brand change, the consensus among the industry is this: if you are going to go for it, go all in and commit to the change.

A few considerations for rebranding

This is no small effort. Expect the process to take time, expect a little negative feedback from existing members, and for a couple of hiccups along the way.

Really consider what a brand change means for you and your credit union. We think name and logo, but where else might that brand change stretch into? Will it change how your branches and website are designed? How your team dresses and interacts with members? What about your marketing and the way in which you communicate with your owners?

Rebranding is a good time to take stock of your credit union; what works and what doesn’t. Keep the things that make your credit union the place members came to love. And for those members that associate a name change with the death of their beloved credit union, communicate the change and the reasons for it early and often. Reassure them that just because it will look a little different does not mean you have lost sight of what matters: them.

What other credit unions say about the process

For some real world examples, we asked a handful of CEOs from credit unions that have rebranded in the last decade for their thoughts on the process, whether the change has been worthwhile in their opinion, and some advice to the organization considering that new look and feel.

bluestone-fcu

Bluestone Federal Credit Union

Formerly Sioux Empire Federal Credit Union
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
President Jeff Jorgensen

michigan-legacy

Michigan Legacy Credit Union

Formerly Affinity Group Credit Union
Pontiac, Michigan
President & CEO Carma Peters

element

Element Federal Credit Union

Formerly WV United FCU
Charleston, West Virginia
CEO + Innovator Linda Bodie

wolverine-state-cu3

Wolverine State Credit Union

Formerly Besser Credit Union
Alpena, Michigan
CEO Nick Montie

When and why did your credit union rebrand? 

Bluestone: We legally changed our name with the NCUA on December 4, 2020. On January 26, 2021, we obtained approval from the NCUA for a greatly expanded field of membership (FOM), going to 48 counties from our previous 5 counties. Our announcement to our membership/public/community was not made until our Annual Meeting, which was held on June 22, 2021. The main reasons we decided to rebrand were two: name confusion in our marketplace & our expanded FOM.

Element: We rebranded to Element FCU in 2012. We were growing and needed a professional involved to ensure our brand was solid. During the review process, we discovered not only a need for branding improvement but also a name change. Our name was often confused with other credit unions and banks. We needed something that differentiated us and connected us with our membership. So, we changed our name and established a fresh new brand that met our criteria.

Michigan Legacy: We rebranded in 2016. [As a multi-corp credit union] we had six brands to manage and it was impossible to market that many brands effectively on one budget. Members were confused and staff was not all on the same cultural page.

Wolverine State: We rebranded in 2017 as a condition of our merger agreement. With two credit unions coming together we wanted a new name that would highlight this new combined credit union. Additionally, with the two former credit union names, one was very geographically limiting and the other was SEG based. So yes, marketing did play a heavy role.

Was the change effective? In what ways? 

Bluestone: I believe it was extremely effective. The name is totally different than any other financial institution in our market area and now we have ZERO confusion about who we are. It is nearly impossible to quantify if the brand change alone was responsible for the increase in memberships or loans or etc., but the marketing blitz that we did certainly drew attention to us. It was interesting that another local credit union was working on its name change at the same time we were. In fact, we use the same local attorney, but they kept quiet and neither of us knew the other’s plans. We announced our name change first and drew lots of attention, all good. Then they announced their name change, about 2-3 months after us, and they received negative feedback about their chosen name, as it was very confusing and not as easily accepted as ours. In some small aspect, their announcement drew more positive press back our way!

Element: Yes, we differentiated ourselves from all others. More people noticed us and engaged. Our name, branding, and mission connected us to the people in our target markets.

Michigan Legacy: Yes, very much. Michigan Legacy fits us. We are Michigan-based and member-owned and Legacy represents the model that was created and our history. We never thought we could be a Starbucks, Nike, etc. however, once we redesigned our branches we now have a brand unique to use and it fits completely.

Wolverine State: Our chosen name was very decisive for the community and that created a lot of buzz around the rebrand. Ultimately, that buzz turned into a much larger presence and awareness in our community. Member engagement definitely increased, and we received a ton of requests for our branded marketing items.

What advice would you offer a CEO considering a branding change? 

Bluestone: It is a lot of work, once you realize where your brand exits. There are soooo many instances of it, all over. We should have planned on it taking a little longer than we anticipated. Upon our attorney’s advice, we filed trademark applications with the USPTO, for both our previous name and our new name. If a credit union does not have its current name trademarked with the USPTO right now, even if they are not considering a name change, I would recommend they begin that process anyway. If they do seek a name change at any time in the future, at least that part is done and off their list!

Element: Be open to doing things differently. Find a branding partner that “gets you.” Make sure you know who you really are. If you don’t know who you are, you might end up with a brand that’s not you. If you really want to put your name and branding to the test, ask yourself if you’d get the tattoo. If not, maybe it’s not so solid. Or maybe you just don’t like tattoos 😊.

Michigan Legacy: There are cost-effective ways to do it. We used Logo Tournament for our logo and it cost us about $400; awesome process.

Wolverine State: Do your research! Try and stay away from overall generic names or names that are too similar to other existing credit unions. You want to find something that sets you apart and builds instant recognition/connection with your members and communities.

Author

  • Esteban Camargo

    As a supervising editor of CUSO Magazine, Esteban reviews and edits submissions, assists in the development of the publishing calendar, and performs his own research and writing. His experience provides CUSO Mag with a seasoned writer and content curator, able to provide valuable input to contributors, correspondents, and freelance journalists. Esteban has worked at CU*Answers since 2008 and currently serves as the CUSO's content marketing manager.

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