On the CU Water Cooler site, William Azaroff wrote:
“When I look at many credit unions, I’m troubled by their blandness, their inoffensiveness. They used to stand for something, but now they’re moving away from differentiation and towards sameness. And many credit unions are doing this at the precise moment when differentiation is a necessity. The question is: do some people hate your brand? If some do, then I would say you’re doing something right. If not, then I’m guessing your organization is trying to be all things to all people, and should take a stand for something and embed that into your brand.”
My take: To quote former President Clinton: “I did not have sex…” No, wait, that’s the wrong quote. I meant this one: “I feel your pain.”
William is spot on that many credit unions aren’t differentiated in the marketplace. What William didn’t get into, however, is why few credit unions are effectively differentiated. There are (at least) three reasons why undifferentiated credit unions are that way:
- They don’t know how to differentiate themselves.
- They think they’re differentiated, but don’t know better.
- They don’t want to be differentiated.
The last reason might surprise you, or strike you as wrong. But after 25 years of being a consultant, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve made a recommendation to a client to do something, only to be met with the following question: “Who else is doing that?” Risk adversity runs deep in the financial service business.
There are also a fair number of CU execs who think that their CU is differentiated. Almost to a man/woman they give the same description of what differentiates their CU: “Our service.” This is often — I’m inclined to say always — wishful thinking. Why? First, service may be what your firm does best, but it doesn’t mean your service is comparatively better. And second, because service means different things to different people.
The most prevalent reason why so many CUs are undifferentiated, however, is probably the first reason: They don’t know how to differentiate themselves.
I’m not looking to pick a fight with William — I suspect he would agree with me here — but approaching the topic of differentiation from the perspective “what can we do to tick people off and be hated by some of them?” is not the right way to go about it.
And with all due respect to my friends in the advertising business, the last thing a credit union should do is bring in the advertising people to help them figure out how to differentiate the CU.
Why? Because there’s a prevalent — but misguided — mindset among advertising people that differentiation comes from “the story you tell.” (If you need proof, go read Seth Godin).
But the story you tell doesn’t differentiate you. What differentiates you is the story that your members tell. That they tell to themselves inside their head, and that they tell verbally to their family and friends. And those stories only come from their experiences with the credit union, not the advertising.
Which means this: Differentiation comes from something you do.
That “something” must be meaningful to members. And that something must be something that: 1) only you do; 2) you do measurably better than anyone else; or 3) you do measurably more often than anyone else.
Differentiation doesn’t come from standing for something, and it doesn’t come from your branding efforts (your differentiation drives your brand, not the other way around).
William’s credit union Vancity “stands” for community development and improvement. So do plenty of other CUs. What differentiates Vancity is that — time and again — they do something about it. They can count the number of times they’ve done something about it, and they can measure the impact of what they’ve done.
Differentiating on service is tenuous. What does that mean? That you fix your mistakes better than anyone else? That the lines in your branch aren’t as long as they are in the mega-banks down the street? That Sally at one of your branches greets everyone by name and with a smile when they come in?
If you’re going to differentiate your credit union, you have to do something. Different, better, or more. None of those options is particularly easy to do. Technology initiatives intended to gain a competitive advantage — mobile banking, remote deposit capture, etc — are often easily (I didn’t say cheaply) copied. Better is hard to prove. And “more” requires strong commitment from the management team for an extended period of time.
This isn’t to say that aren’t opportunities for differentiation, just that they require commitment — and a lot of it.
So what can you do to differentiate your CU? I think it comes from committing to differentiate in one — and only one — of the following areas:
1. Advice. Managing our financial lives is tough and getting tougher. People need help making smart financial choices. But the advice available in the market tends to be focused on asset allocation and stock picking for the relatively affluent, or focused at the very lowest end of the income spectrum for people who need help with serious debt problems. What about everybody else in the middle? What about providing help with all those everyday/week/year decisions that have to be made? PFM holds the potential to provide and deliver this kind of advice, but the tools aren’t quite there yet. If this is the path you choose, you’re going to have to make some investments to develop them and get them to point where they can deliver on this promise.
2. Convenience. There’s one bank in the Boston marketplace that advertises itself as the “most convenient” bank. Hooey. Having extended branch hours and free checking isn’t “convenience.” Making people’s financial lives easier — i.e. more convenient — to manage is a complex and difficult proposition. But when you’re really doing it, people know it. And you’ll be differentiated.
3. Performance. You might not be the easiest FI in the market for me to deal with, and you might not provide me with any advice (maybe because I don’t want any), but if the performance of my financial life — that is, the interest I earn, the fees I pay, and the rewards I get and earn, are superior to everyone else out there, than I will consider you to be differentiated in the marketplace.
I didn’t say differentiation is easy.