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Credit union marketing should embrace the (slightly) outlandish

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Credit union marketing should embrace the (slightly) outlandish

Although credit unions continue to grow their memberships, there may be an opportunity to use outside-the-box marketing to reach an even larger — and younger — audience.

There were roughly 92 million credit union members in the U.S. at the end of 2010, and that number had grown to 108 million by Dec. 31, 2016. But former National Credit Union Administration board member Geoff Bacino said credit unions can improve on those numbers by developing a marketing "tidal wave," and that involves not being afraid to think "slightly outlandish."

Bacino, a credit union consultant, said in an interview that that means being willing to take some chances. "The rules that we had 20 years ago are different now," he said. "People might have been insulted by something back then, but now the younger people think it's funny."

For example, Bacino pointed to One Nevada Credit Union's "Bad A$$" marketing campaign from a couple of years ago. "When I was growing up there was no way you could put that in the public realm," he said. "But it's different now." To remain competitive, credit unions are going to need to put their old marketing ways on the chopping block. Bacino said the standard acceptable to Americans in marketing and advertising is changing as social mores evolve, and credit unions need to take advantage of that.

One 2016 study indicated that only 27% of millennials are credit union members, so that is a segment credit unions will continue to target.

Todd Feldman, chief marketing officer for Virginia Credit Union Inc., said being relevant to any audience is about remaining authentic and not trying too hard. He said it is important to distinguish between advertising and marketing, as advertising is an output of solid marketing fundamentals. From a marketing standpoint, the credit union's goal is to be available to all of its audiences, with products that make sense to their lives, in the channels in which they choose to interact. From there, institutions can align their advertising messaging to be naturally relevant. "I think it's a mistake to categorize the blueprint to reach millennials differently than your blueprint to be relevant to any other audience," he said.

Feldman said the same principles apply regardless of the target audience, and success is born from a good foundation of research validated by testing and learning over time. He said it is a fine line to walk between being outlandish in a positive way and potentially turning off some members or potential members. And trying to be "cool" is tricky too. "Approaches that deviate from good solid marketing practices rooted in research and validated in testing are risky," he said.

Bacino said social media could help with efforts to draw in the younger generation, and it is one area where credit unions are doing a much better job compared to some of the competition. "I wouldn't say they've mastered it, but they've picked it up better than the bankers have," he said.

David Noble, vice president of marketing at Beaverton, Ore.-based Rivermark Community Credit Union, said in an interview that he wants the credit union's marketing efforts not to be outlandish or cutesy but rather to focus on being relevant. The credit union industry as a whole must do a better job of leveraging its first- and third-party data to predict intent across all demographic segments — including millennials, he said.

"As it stands today, Gen Y still needs the same basic financial services to finance that first car, education, home or to conduct everyday transactions as well as to save and invest," he said. "When and how those products are presented or accessed is changing, but the fundamentals remain the same."

Bacino said there are many marketing lessons to be learned from the 2016 presidential election that will continue to resonate for years to come. One of the biggest was the manner in which Donald Trump shook up the status quo. The president torched the rulebook, which resulted in a historic upset, Bacino said. For credit union marketers, breaking out of the status quo can be one of the most challenging things to do.

"Understand this isn't a license to go crazy, rather it's the latitude to do things dramatically different," he said. While many a marketer's dream is to hit a grand slam like the "Got Milk" campaign of the 1990s, it is the compounding of multiple disruptive events that yields the greatest results, Bacino said.

Credit unions tend to get into something but then just as quickly fall out of it, Bacino said. But Trump's "Make America Great Again" message showed the value of constant repetition. "You need to create the message and then you need to constantly reinforce the message," he said. "The Trump folks just kept coming."