Beyond Service and Low Fees: How to Differentiate Your Credit Union Through Cause Marketing

There are over 6,000 credit unions and over 5,000 community banks in the United States. What makes yours different from the rest? Credit unions consistently fall back on six generic brand differentiators:

  • Friendly customer service
  • Low fees
  • Personal client relationships
  • Local origins
  • The credit union mission
  • Community service

But the truth is, while these qualities may differentiate your business from a mega bank, they are not enough to make your credit union stand out from other credit unions or community banks.

With the expansion of fields of membership giving consumers more choices than ever before and technology enabling more consumers to be primarily digital in their interactions, most of those so-called differentiators are increasingly becoming table stakes to earn business from your prospective and current members. So what can you do to make your credit union different from the rest?

When it comes to building a remarkable brand that will stand out in the industry and deepen employee engagement and commitment, cause marketing is a powerful, and often misunderstood, strategy you can use to create a remarkable brand.

Cause marketing refers to aligning a brand with a cause to produce profitable and socially beneficial outcomes.

While it is typically used to refer to a cooperative effort between a for-profit business and a nonprofit, in this article we will be defining it as a cooperative effort between your (nonprofit) credit union and one or more nonprofits towards a shared cause. You might already engage in charitable giving efforts as part of the credit union mission, but in an industry overwhelmed with tired slogans about being “part of the family,” perhaps it’s time to not only embrace a cause, but to make that cause your key differentiator.

To see how cause marketing can work, let’s look to the example of Northwest Community Credit Union in Springfield, Oregon, which uses bicycle-powered blenders to make smoothies at branches on Fridays.

Fun? Check. Memorable? Definitely. Buzzworthy? Yep.

But are smoothies enough? Not unless the credit union connects them in a meaningful way to a value members care about. So let’s take the concept further with a cause marketing strategy for a hypothetical credit union we’ll call Pacific Northwest Credit Union (PNCU).

We’ll pretend PNCU has two branches in our own, environmentally conscious Portland, Oregon. They saw Northwest Community Credit Union’s campaign, and they loved the idea of energy-efficient smoothies, because many of PNCU’s staff are passionate about sustainability. They decide to incorporate the smoothies as just one tactic of a broader cause marketing strategy, branding their credit union as the 100% sustainable, carbon-neutral credit union. When made part of broader, ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the importance of going carbon-neutral, suddenly, the bicycle-powered smoothies don’t just seem like a cool gimmick—they become part of a larger effort that community members who are also passionate about the issue can get behind. As a bonus, those community members start to associate that cause with the PNCU brand.

When cause marketing is done right, your cause becomes your brand.

A lot of credit unions are actively involved in a number of causes; but they have not succeeded in making their cause their brand. To see how it’s done, let’s follow these six critical steps to creating a successful cause marketing brand.

Step #1: Learn what makes a cause a good fit for your brand.

We’ll make this step easy and outline what we’ve learned about what makes a particular cause a good fit or not. The three things that make a typical cause marketing campaign fail are:

  1. The brand chooses a cause that seems inauthentic for the brand to care about.
  2. The brand does not identify a cause that their target audience cares about.
  3. The brand chooses a cause that is so broad that they cannot effectively target a niche.

Conversely, here are the identifiers of a brand-worthy cause:

Brand-worthy causes are authentic. Authenticity, of course, comes with practicing what your credit union preaches. Some of the biggest cause marketing failures have occurred because a brand is supporting a cause that blatantly doesn’t match the core of the brand. For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken got huge backlash when it pledged donations to Susan G. Komen foundation . . . for every order of a large bucket of fried chicken. At the time of the campaign, there was existing suspicion that fried chicken could actually contribute to cancer, so this was a poor strategic move for both KFC and Susan G. Komen, and both suffered PR backlash for the partnership.

Even more recently, Pepsi’s attempt to capitalize on activist movements backfired spectacularly when they created an ad where Kendall Jenner skips a photo shoot to join a protest and unites the protesters and cops by handing a cop a Pepsi. As you may guess, rather than uniting with their audience, Pepsi found itself at odds with the viewers they sought to connect with, who saw the ad as making light of serious political issues. As Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. sarcastically put it, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Pepsi’s brand has nothing to do with activism or free speech, so their ad came across as not only tone deaf but offensive—the polar opposite of its goal.

Anyone can see through a disingenuous attempt at cause marketing. You want to highlight, not hurt, your brand, so make sure you have a real story behind your cause.

When PNCU defined its cause, it first would have done the requisite authenticity-check: Do its branches utilize renewable energy sources, or will they in the near future? Does the company have a history of environmental stewardship? Do they print mailings on recycled paper? If the answer is more often than not “No,” then their cause would ultimately fail as their brand.

Brand-worthy causes align with your prospective members’ deeply held beliefs. In his book, All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories, Seth Godin outlined the importance of aligning your brand stories around people’s strongly held worldviews. According to Cone Communications/Ebiquity’s 2015 Global CSR Study, 90% of U.S. consumers say they would switch brands to one associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality.

This growing trend has already expressed itself in the market in several examples including the brand Tom’s. Originally Tom’s Shoes, Tom’s cause was clear and effective: One for one; for every pair of shoes a customer bought, they donated a pair of shoes to someone in need. As the brand has grown, they have expanded their cause to become “One for One for All” to encompass the additional products they sell and expand their cause beyond just shoes to also include eyewear, clean water, birthing services, and bullying prevention. The brand was valued by Reuters at over $600 million in 2014.

When you choose a cause to build your brand on, you want it to be an issue that a large group of people care about and one that people can readily recognize as that cause. Tom’s “One for One” couldn’t be clearer.

Going back to our example of PNCU and their bicycle-powered smoothie machines, PNCU could have fallen into the trap of saying their cause is “saving the environment.” Sure, that sounds nice, but does that mean PNCU is protecting spotted owls or campaigning against oil pipelines? People who care about “saving the environment” have very different opinions about how to go about it. By choosing a clear focus on being the 100% sustainable, carbon-neutral credit union, PNCU both gives the company a clear story to tell and a focused worldview that will resonate with prospective and current members.

Brand-worthy causes are not supported by everyone. Don’t choose a cause simply because it’s “safe” or because it might appeal to the broadest subset of your membership base. The causes that are the most buzzworthy are often those that some people will strongly disagree with.

Our client Point West Credit Union has taken on a cause that touches on the hot-button issue of immigration, by offering financial services to non-citizens. Point West not only allows non-citizens to be members, but they are looking to find additional ways to support local communities of non-citizens. There’s a large group of people who would oppose that cause—perhaps you are one of them. But the very fact that you have a forceful opinion either way indicates that Point West has succeeded in focusing their cause around a strongly held belief.

The word differentiation comes from the word different, and being different can feel uncomfortable.

In the case of Pacific Northwest Credit Union, by working to raise awareness around the importance of going carbon-neutral, they are placing themselves squarely on one side of the global climate change debate: Yes, global climate change is real, and yes, it is most likely caused by human activities. (Go read the evidence from NASA.) By being willing to place a stake in this claim, they will win favor with the large swath of people in the Portland area who agree.

Step #2: Engage your employees to choose your cause.

Employees will be your best or worst brand ambassadors. If you can successfully get them to “live your cause,” they live your brand. Depending on the cause you choose though, you may have a hard time convincing them to do that.

A cause marketing strategy built around the CEO’s pet project may induce more eye-rolling than engagement amongst your employees. So rather than make a top-down decision and have to do a bunch of culture training around your brand, get your employees involved in finding a cause that everyone at your credit union can get behind. Ask yourself: How can your employees authentically engage with the cause, and how can the company internally generate excitement?

Survey your employees to gauge interest. Credit unions have a unique advantage in that all of them are already invested in living the credit union mission. What are the causes the credit union is already involved in that get employees excited? Identify the top 10 that meet the brand-worthy cause criteria, and send out a survey to your team to gauge their interest.

In the survey, include a preface explaining that you are considering taking the credit union’s brand in a new direction focused around a particular cause. Ask them to rate each cause on a scale of 1–10, with 1 being “I’m most excited about this cause” and 10 being “I’m least excited about this cause.” Include a follow-up question of “Which, if any, of the following causes are you outright opposed to?” so they can select any that apply. Close with a final question: “Would you be interested in participating to help shape our new brand around the cause?”

The survey will give you a sense of which causes will make for logical focus areas for your brand and help you identify potential allies in the process to building the brand.

Define the specifics around how your cause will become your brand. With the help of the survey results, you should be ready to move forward defining the specifics of your cause, i.e., how will the credit union adopt, enact, and embody the cause? Reach out to employee volunteers who are passionate about the chosen cause. Work with them to identify how the credit union can get employees and members on board with the cause as well as what initiatives the credit union should be working on around the cause. If you’ve identified your causes successfully, it is likely your credit union is already working on some initiatives.

This step could occur in many different forms, including:

  • Open houses with you where employees can come and propose their ideas.
  • Designated action teams with tasks around defining an action plan.
  • Volunteer events where employees participate in volunteering for the cause with a meeting afterward to discuss the path forward.

For PNCU, free smoothies for employees on Friday are a nice start, but by working with employees they could define other ways they will raise awareness about the importance of going carbon neutral. Those ideas could include cash incentives for employees who bike or take alternative forms of transportation to work. Or PNCU could issue a company-wide challenge for staff members to reduce their carbon footprints in measurable ways. Or PNCU could make a “carbon counter,” which displays in all their branches and on their website and shows how PNCU compares to an average financial institution and what additional steps are being taken to reduce their carbon footprint towards zero.

Hire and train for your cause. For a cause to truly become a part of your brand, your employees need to be as enthusiastic about the cause as your members and prospects. Make sure they know the nuances of your cause, how they can participate in being a part of the cause, and are prepared to tell members how they can get involved too.

Solicit input at each stage from honing in on your cause to developing a strategy around it. Your employees will naturally inspire members and prospects with their enthusiasm.

Step #3: Find your tribe outside the credit union.

In Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, he explains how the most powerful consumer audiences are those groups aligned around those beliefs, what he calls “tribes.” If you’ve successfully engaged your employees, you’ve already discovered some of your tribe members, and they can help you identify others like them.

Who qualifies to be in your tribe? As you go about defining who among your prospects and members is also a fit, remember: The people who make up your tribe are not just those who believe in your cause—they are the people who are ready, eager, and able to influence a large group of their friends to join the cause too. Your tribe members will happily give you free word of mouth, share your content on social media, and participate in your cause marketing initiatives.

Tom’s invited their tribe to participate in their 2016 One Day Without Shoes Instagram campaign, raising awareness about the cause behind their brand. They asked their tribe to post a photo of their bare feet with the hashtag #WithoutShoes, and in exchange Tom’s donated a pair of shoes to someone in need. 3.5 million people participated. That was great exposure for the cause—and for Tom’s brand.

Get specific about who is part of your tribe. The more specific you can get in defining your tribe members, the better. In the case of PNCU, not every Portland resident is passionate about sustainability and carbon-neutrality. They would need to go about defining their tribe with all the basic demographic questions (age, education, etc.), but they’d also want to dig deeper with questions like:

  • What other brands do our tribe members love? New Seasons or Whole Foods, perhaps?
  • What local organizations are they involved with? Bike Transit Authority, likely.
  • What kinds of products are they buying? High-efficiency appliances and maybe even solar panels or a subscription to use wind power through the local power company.

The more specific you can get in defining your tribe, the more targeted you can be in your outreach to them.

Step #4: Engage your members.

Your members might appreciate the warm and fuzzy PR that comes with donating to a worthy cause, but how can they actually get involved? You should give your members multiple avenues to participate in your cause (and, in doing so, interact with your brand).

Find ways for your members to get involved that are both buzzworthy and meaningful. After The Bank of Ann Arbor committed to supporting performing arts in the schools, the bank let its customers choose which 12 local schools would receive donations. According to Selfish Giving:

“It’s an understatement to say the campaign was successful. The 47,300 votes cast grew the bank’s fan base by 10%, reached 170,000 Facebook users, and successfully crowdsourced charitable giving to 12 schools. From the beginning, Bank of Ann Arbor involved all 150+ area schools and 150 employees to act as campaign advocates and promote the campaign.”

PNCU could consider a similar campaign, allowing its membership to decide which schools get donations toward renewable energy upgrades. PNCU could also issue a “reduce your carbon footprint” challenge to their tribe members in and outside of the credit union, providing them with tools to track their daily environmental impact. The tool would not only report back on participants success, but at set intervals of one month, three months, and one year, participants who are also members would be awarded a $5, $10, or $100 deposit depending on how well they do. Such a campaign would not only generate excitement around their cause, it would increase awareness of the brand and encourage new membership as people eager to get the reward join the credit union.

Step #5: Leverage multiple channels.

Just as you would want a logo and tagline to be visible across multiple channels, from your branches to your bank statements to your social media profiles, so do you want to create similar multichannel visibility for your cause.

With PNCU’s strategic focus of carbon-neutrality, let’s revisit the bicycle-powered smoothies. The machines themselves are a great conversation starter that PNCU can display not only in its branches, but also around town. Here are a few channels they should consider:

  • Partner with a smoothie shop to bring the bike-powered machines to local events (street fairs, farmers markets, sporting events, etc.). A portion of the proceeds for every bike-powered smoothie sold would get donated to renewable energy offsets for the smoothie shop.
  • Take photos and videos of locals operating the smoothie machine (which of course prominently displays your logo) and post regularly to social media.
  • Co-brand an app to help members track their carbon footprint.
  • Leverage the blog, email newsletter, and social media channels to profile members who are participating in the “reduce your carbon footprint” challenge and solicit tips from them on what steps they are taking to reduce environmental impact.
  • Share tips or “mini-challenges” via push notifications on the app or text message alerts.
  • Create a display, also replicated online, that says something to the effect of: “Our members have saved XX tons of CO2 since August 1, 2016” with a call-to-action to join the challenge.
  • Start a weekly event promoting “carbon-free Fridays,” where participants post photos on Instagram of how they are avoiding consuming carbon for the day with the hashtag #CarbonFreeFridays.
  • Donate a certain amount to a local nonprofit that promotes carbon neutrality each time a member completes a certain type of transaction, or implement a “keep the change” program in your online banking system to allow members to directly donate their “change” to the nonprofit.

By bringing your cause to multiple channels, you increase the chances that your cause will go viral.

Step #6: Measure and communicate your impact.

People are growing ever more cautious about groups that claim to support a cause, but actually spend the majority of their resources on administrative efforts with little to no real results. Your tribe members will expect you not only to say that you are supporting the cause, but they will expect you to provide real data about your results.

Credit unions in particular have a long way to go to successfully communicate their impact, for the causes they support as well as their general positive impacts on the community as a whole. According to research from Filene during interviews with a range of credit unions with assets ranging from $27 million to $11 billion, credit unions are lacking in this regard (emphasis mine):

With pride, credit unions speak about making meaningful impacts in their communities as volunteers and philanthropists … [But] no credit union interviewed has quantified the role and impacts of the credit union and its members, nor the savings achieved through membership, and no credit union has compared its impact’s priorities with the objectively known needs of its members and community setting.

Moreover, no credit union interviewed uses a quality-of-life or life-cycle anticipation framework to handle and help resolve community disaster response, major employer shutdown, real estate market swings, or other events that affect credit union members on a recurring basis. No credit union interviewed has a robust set of sustainability goals and metrics for benchmarking the impacts of its and its members’ transactions or setting interest rates in line with sustainability goals. In short, credit unions do a poor job showing their own impact.

The key to communicating your impact is to make it measurable from the start. Saying you donated to a local school sounds nice, but what did the school do with the money, and how were the students’ lives improved by the donations?

You want both numbers and stories. The numbers help to track progress and to show members at a glance that you are truly making a difference. The stories help make the cause personal.

One of our clients, Clearinghouse CDFI, does a great job communicating their impacts to investors in several ways. They have a whole section of their website focused on their impacts, which features an impact map, key impact numbers (such as the number of affordable housing units their funds have helped to create), and impact stories.

Another great example of business communicating community impact is Hopworks Urban Brewery. They focus their brand around “Do Good: Quality, Community, Planet” and have pages dedicated to how each one is at the core of their brand. They cover all the bases, from their ingredients to how they transport their products in sustainable ways. Most important, they are specific in what they’re reporting, right down to the 3.39 gallons of water per gallon of beer they produce.

In PNCU’s case, both employee- and member-focused carbon footprint challenges are appealing because they are easily measurable, can be reported on regularly (for example, through the in-branch display or online), and are a consistent source of user-generated stories and tips.

PNCU could be so much more than the credit union that treats its customers like family. It could even be so much more than the credit union that has “those cool smoothie machines.” With commitment and creativity, PNCU could be the brand that inspired a community to increase its use of renewable energy sources and the brand that leads its industry in carbon emission reduction.

That is meaningful differentiation.