Community Service

Is CU History Still Relevant?

Our history helps build the framework people rely on when they think about CUs.

October 15, 2013
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Building the structural framework

Credit unions are a well-kept secret from many Americans, even though the term “credit union” resonates positively for those familiar with our history. Credit unions have always struggled to build a stronger brand, nationally.

But it hasn’t been for lack of effort—the National Advertising Program, the National Marketing Program, and the National Branding Campaign were all major initiatives that eventually faded away for lack of funding. Leagues have sponsored state-wide programs that have been met with mixed success.

Why do those failures continue to haunt us and why is it essential we try again? Consider how people process information: What people say, how they act, what they support, and what they dislike depends on how they think.

Linguists and cognitive scientists tell us we think in a deeply embedded psychological manner at the sub-conscious level. We think more emotionally at this level than rationally.

We use what linguists call structural frames that simplify our thinking. We think metaphorically because metaphors simplify how we think.

Credit union pioneers used metaphors such as “bridge” or “crusade” to paint simple pictures of credit unions and their purpose.

Frames and metaphors can be positive, negative, or neutral. Banks are an “industry.”

The structural frame for “industry” includes words such as commerce, business, productivity, and work. Credit unions are a “movement.” The structural frame for
“movement” includes words such as progress, action, or change.

Both words carry dissimilar structural frames, and metaphorically people think differently about credit unions than they do banks.

That’s why credit unions historically have been able to rally members to their cause when they’re threatened. Many members have built positive structural frames for credit unions because of their experiences.

Credit unions aren’t viewed as callous, bottom-line-driven institutions that care primarily for profit. Nor are credit unions viewed as institutions that helped drive the world to the brink of financial collapse a few years ago.

Credit unions are the “minutemen” or guardians of American households as depicted in a famous Joe Stern political cartoon—one of many commissioned in the 1920s by Edward Filene and Roy Bergengren to craft a positive public opinion of credit unions.

Our history matters a great deal because it helps build the framework that people rely on when they think about credit unions.

Activists, politicians, propagandists, and marketers are particularly adept at using frames and metaphors to mold thoughts. Our movement’s founders worked diligently to build a framework around which the public could construct a popular image of credit unions compared with their competitors. They were master marketers.

The reality, of course,is that banks are often better than their public images. Banks can do wonderful things, but few people would use the metaphor of a white hat when talking about banks as they do when talking about credit unions.

Now the challenge is to take the positive, emotive framework that many apply to credit unions and build upon it to rally more people around the kind of momentum generated last fall by Bank Transfer Day.

Our history is deep and meaningful, and the movement’s history is integral to the history of each credit union. Our employees and volunteers need that understanding.

A credit union is not just another choice in the marketplace; it’s part of a beautiful tapestry whose threads are our diversity in common bonds and our commonality of mission to serve all Americans. We can’t afford for our history to be ignored, misunderstood, or poorly taught.

If we don’t understand and communicate our history, how can we expect our members to appreciate its relevance in terms of how we operate, the products and services we offer, and how we price and deliver them?

We need to build a broader structural framework than what currently exists—one that appeals intuitively to all Americans. Otherwise, we must constantly re-educate the public. A good and positive structural frame that sways public opinion requires personal experience, plus consistent exposure to repetitive marketing and brand messaging.

History matters because history is not just about the past. History is the ongoing accumulation of human experience and knowledge upon which we build current and future actions.

History is dynamic. It’s a vibrant force that guides our future course. Credit unions were designed as vehicles of reform, and we must continue to focus on reform if our past is to influence our future.

We must touch the human heart if we’re to provide a purpose to our existence that goes beyond profit, or even service. That’s why our history matters.

MARK CONDON recently retired as CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing.

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