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CEO Caroline Willard Opens Up Southwest Lending Conference
Thursday, May 18, 2017 6:55 AM

Caroline Willard speaking at Southwest Lending Conference

At Wednesday's Southwest Lending Conference in Austin, Cornerstone Credit Union League President/CEO Caroline Willard welcomed attendees with a few thoughts about the Movement and some takeaways from her recent visits with credit unions around the region.

Willard said she wants to make sure credit unions are geared up to serve their members better than banks can serve customers. She feels strongly about the sustainability of the Credit Union Movement and says credit unions can do a lot in addition to what they might already be doing. She touched on three things the League does to help, which is communicate, advocate, and educate.

Having started out as a marketer, Willard believes strongly in great communication. She urged credit union leaders in the audience: "Don't be the best-kept secret."

Some of her concerns surround the things the public doesn't realize credit unions do. She cited a number of myths and misconceptions, as revealed by the CUNA Awareness Initiative and related quantitative research. One myth is the claim of social responsibility.

"Every brand is claiming social responsibility, so it's not wholly ownable anymore," Willard said, pointing out that even McDonald's boasts about their social responsibility efforts. Credit unions have to look for other differentiators as well.

Another concern is the language credit unions use. For instance, banks "stole" the verb banking and bank, she said. We don't say, "We credit-union at XX Credit Union" or that the transactions there are considered credit-unioning. But what's the alternative? There's not an easily identifiable term for credit unions other than the common term of banking.

CUNA's research also found there's not an easy way to define a credit union in sound bites. Our own definitions are much longer than banks' that almost need no added definition. The research also found that when credit unions try to distinguish themselves from banks, bashing banks doesn't work.

Here are some other myths about credit unions:

  • People don't know they can join.
  • People question the need to "join" a financial institution.
  • People think credit unions are only for people in need.
  • Credit unions are too small, which may equate to not as sound.
  • Credit unions aren't as savvy or technologically advanced, or data may be less secure.
  • Credit unions aren't scalable and can't grow like banks.

Some backlash concepts include:

  • Compared to "status" cards, described as "platinum" "gold," etc., people thought credit union cards lacked status.
  • Surprising even researchers, there was backlash on the use of the word "member." Consumers didn't get it.
  • Also negative, "cooperative" failed miserably with consumers.

Willard pointed to Cornerstone's own awareness campaign, "Feel the Difference," and touched on the new tools available online to credit unions for digital marketing campaigns, which are well suited to helping credit unions distinguish themselves from banks in fun and engaging ways.

Check out the Feel the Difference campaign ideas.

Willard noted this week's activity in Congress regarding the Financial CHOICE Act, by Chairman Jeb Hensarling  (R-Texas). She said the practices that Dodd-Franks seeks to curtail don't apply to credit unions. She reiterated the need for people to respond this week to Tuesday's action alert surrounding the CHOICE Act.

She touched on three highly successful initiatives that credit unions can use right now to boost their advocacy efforts and ensure credit union sustainability.

Project Zip Code gets a lawmaker's attention during face-to-face visits, and it's easy to institute. Project Zip Code is aimed directly at giving lawmakers visual insight into how many credit union members/constituents reside in their districts.

When it's time to mobilize members, the Member Activation Program (MAP) is the go-to resource for credit unions.

Last but not least, payroll deduction supports the political action campaigns statewide and nationally, and is a critical way to get the attention of lawmakers. When you can say you have a check to give them, lawmakers are more apt to listen to what you have to say.

Willard adds that she's seen the value of collaboration. Credit unions that collaborate with each other do better. From her own experience, as well, she's seen league presidents around the country collaborate to great effect. She says when there's so much willingness among people in credit unions to collaborate, we can "exploit" that and put their shared good ideas together for the future. Shared concepts can be scaled across larger areas to advance and amplify the best ideas.

Willard has been visiting credit unions around the Cornerstone region. Based on feedback, in addition to dues-supported training offerings, she's looking at the pricing structure for other Cornerstone offerings. That includes ensuring that the fee-based services are compelling and sophisticated enough to attract bigger credit unions, while maintaining price sensitivity for smaller credit unions, including bundling some training options. This is one of her challenging tasks for the year.

Willard also touched on compliance. The need for compliance services has exploded, she says, and Cornerstone can help with existing professional staff and programs. She praised Cornerstone's executive search services in its subsidiary, Credit Union Resources, noting that it was due to Marcus Cotton, VP executive recruiting, that she was hired by Cornerstone.

Among other services, Willard talked about the need for COOP Shared Branching to ensure members have widest access to their accounts and to ensure connectivity with other credit unions locally and nationwide. She recommended the Cornerstone research team, which localizes the precise information and data you need; Cornerstone representatives who serve as points of contact for affiliated credit unions; and Southwest CUNA Management School.

Finally, Willard talked about efficiency and how credit unions compare to banks. She notes that credit unions need to remain competitive while running lean, but not so lean that they reduce products and services and hinder a compelling transactional experience for members. Balance is key.