On My Mind: What's a Credit Union?

CUs have their work cut out for them to improve consumer awareness.

August 30, 2010

Each summer, I present the findings of the Credit Union National Association’s (CUNA) Credit Union Environmental Scan to students at CUNA Management School—a three-year school held on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus every July.

I give the students a PowerPoint presentation and then my co-presenter and CUNA colleague—Kristina Grebener—gives them a little field work for the rest of the afternoon.

video What's a CU? Watch now.

She divides the class into five teams of about a dozen students and gives each team a Flip video camera. Their job is to roam around campus interviewing people, asking questions like, “Do you know what a credit union is?” The goal of the exercise is to gauge consumer awareness of credit unions.

The teams return after an hour and share their videos with the class. To people like me who’ve spent their entire careers communicating the benefits of credit union membership, the videos trigger thoughts of a career change. They evoke reactions such as depression, laughter, panic, amazement—and back to depression.

The most common interviewee response: “I have no idea what a credit union is.” After that: “I use a bank because my parents signed me up there.”

Other responses:

  • “I think a credit union is one of those companies that monitors your credit report.”
  •  “A credit union is where you pay your taxes.”
  • “Credit unions are like labor unions—you pay fees to belong.”

One team finally met a guy who knew a lot about credit unions, although he used a bank. He knew credit unions are financial cooperatives and that they return profits to members. He knew credit unions exist to serve members and banks exist to maximize shareholder profits.

“Why,” they asked, “if you know about all these credit union benefits do you still do business with a bank?”

“I’m one of those bank shareholders,” he replied.

Suffice it to say, credit unions have a tremendous amount of work to do to move the needle on consumer awareness.