In an earlier post we took a cursory look at five critical areas where credit unions need to focus attention and energy to improve their performance. This post is the last in a five-part series where we take a deeper look at each of these areas and provide some simple action steps to get the conversation and the action underway.

Branding may be one of the most misunderstood concepts in the business world (and this brief blog post is not likely to correct that problem). Some people think of a brand as a logo or the colors used by a business. Others see it as a set of values and beliefs that guide the business. Others see brand in terms of specific products and services, and the relationship they create with your customers.

But most agree that brands differentiate products, services, and companies…that they are the collection of a number of factors that lead to customer loyalty, and that they have some set of indentifying features that are used to drive and build relationships with the people the business serves.

When it comes to credit unions, one thing about branding is certain…

your brand is not ‘credit union.’ Credit union is your form of business organization, but it is not your brand. It differentiates your business only to those who understand that a credit union is a non-profit that provides financial services, but as a brand it does little, if anything, to differentiate you in the marketplace, and it is too general to support an effective position in the minds of the limited universe of people eligible for membership in your credit union.

That said, it is important for you to build your brand with your current and prospective members, and here are three steps to get your started:

1. Define YOUR Brand. The essence of your credit union’s brand should be a set of features that lead to specific benefits for your members…reasons for them to do business with your credit union that can be identified, communicated, and understood. YOUR brand needs to reflect something that consumers can get from your credit union that they cannot get elsewhere…something that gives you a preferred position in their minds, so that when they need financial services they think of your credit union as the place they need to go.

Once you have defined your brand, you can then update and enhance, or perhaps completely retool, all of the collateral materials…logo, color scheme, letterhead, building design, and so forth…to focus them on reinforcing and communicating your brand image in an appropriately memorable manner.

2. Establish YOUR Shark-Fin. One of the most difficult things for any business is finding something that truly differentiates them in the marketplace. It’s that thing that you do better than others, that when seen by people immediately makes them think of you…the way a shark fin above the water leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind what is swimming toward them.

The real challenge here is finding a way to make your credit union stand out amid a marketplace crowded with players who all seem to deliver the same commodity package of products and services, i.e., savings, checking, debit cards, credit cards, mortgages, CDs, IRAs, home equity loans, auto loans, signature loans and so forth. And great service is not enough anymore, because every player in the financial services marketplace is selling service these days.

Defining and establishing your shark fin is no easy task…that is why so few have done it effectively, if at all. But when you do, you open up a whole new world for your credit union…a world where you have something that no one else has, that everyone understands and knows about, and that drives the right kind of members to come to you because you can solve their specific problems. It is a necessity that merits the hard work necessary if you want your credit union to thrive in the long term.

One caveat…the real obstacle most businesses, including credit unions, face when it comes to defining their shark fin is the lack of willingness to focus their efforts…to give up some products and services, some locations, some members, and so forth…to position themselves as delivering only a certain mix of products and services that meets the needs of the specific population they want to serve better than anyone else does.

3. Increase YOUR Visibility. With your brand defined and your shark-fin established, the next step is to increase your visibility in the marketplace your serve so that not only current and prospective members know who you are and what you do, but the folks they turn to for advice also know. The sphere of influence that was once relatively localized for credit unions to the people within a specific business or group of businesses has increased, and your efforts to inform need to be similarly expanded.

Simply stated, your community presence, awareness, and support are important keys to future success for all credit unions. It is no longer enough for those who already belong to know what you stand for and what you do, you need a broader reach and an expanded impact. The time, money, and energy invested will pay-off as your expanded visibility brings more business to your brand differentiated credit union.

ACTION ADVICE: Conduct a brand assessment for your credit union. Do your marketing materials, locations, and employees represent a clear brand that people are familiar with, comfortable with, and aware of? Do you have a clear shark-fin that differentiates you in the market you serve? Do your current and prospective members know about it? Is it regularly communicated and reinforced in the community? How can you improve and enhance your brand to support the long term growth of your credit union?