Great health rarely comes from one simple solution like changing your diet, sleeping more, or just exercise alone. You treat the roots, not just the symptoms.

You start first with a good diagnosis and assessment about the state of your health from a well trained professional - physical, mental, even emotional. You uncover what's brought you to the state you're in - before you take a friend's advice to leap on a treadmill - or worse, to drink wheat grass shots. You look at the whole body and mind, not just the surface.

What does this have to do with your financial institution's brand?

Probably the most frequent comment I hear across the US and Canada from financial executives is, "I'm not sure we know what our brand is internally, let alone how we're doing on delivering it out in the market." What is that such a huge question without clear answers?

A "brand" is not done when you update your logo, add mobile banking, build a new branch, upgrade your website or even change names to differentiate yourself. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner described it succinctly saying, "a brand is a living entity, the sum of a thousand small gestures." Great brands require nurturing, focus, alignment and clear metrics to adapt and remain relevant.

So how do you discover the state of your brand?

Brand health requires a serious outside, unbiased expert assessment, evaluation and research-based checkup to see how well it is performing, keeping pace with changing times, being lived out internally among staff and evolving in rapidly changing online channels across a myriad of consumer facing touch points.

Brands are at different stages of vitality and decline and uncovering what's needed requires serious attention, starting with your members and your markets.

Financial service consumers today are savvy, time-starved, convenience-driven, skeptical shoppers who make countless decisions every day based on brand preference.

At rare moments, they need a "bank (just a verb)" - to loan them funds to buy a home, make a deposit, find a decent saving rate, or open a checking account. They literally have thousands of choices delivered in every media possible on a daily basis.

Here's where your brand challenge begins: with limited marketing dollars, a handful of branches, and maybe a "legacy name" tied to a declining sponsor, you have to find a compelling and vibrant brand story to stand out beyond the competition. That's a far cry from the old days when Motorola, John Deere and federal employees lined up to join their credit union, worked at one job for 35 years and would never consider another option for savings and auto loans.

The "good old credit union days" of total loyalty and lifelong relationships are as distant a memory as Polaroid and Oldsmobile. Especially among consumers under 35 who don't even know what a credit union is.

While all of us would love to have the legacy and name/brand power of Navy Credit Union or USAA, with an unlimited source of members and a razor-focused growing market, many credit unions face real-life market challenges: dwindling market share, growing competition, price margin squeezes, costly technology and low net member growth.

Brands are defined by your members' perceptions of many messages, impressions - including your name. Brands are built from direct first and indirect second hand interactions. Some of those experiences are within your control and must be carefully managed - and some are not. So if you're seeking real strategic guidance on enhancing your brand health, you need to consider a broad perspective and all the analytical tools, strategies and options you can get to actively manage and focus your brand internally and externally to good health.

If you want to know the value and impact of some healthy name and brand strategies that looked to the future and acted boldly to compete, ask a few CEO's like Bob Kane of Red Canoe Credit Union, who changed names in 2007 fro Weyerhaeuser Employees Credit Union. Or ask Roger Michealis from Vancouver, WA, who changed names in 2004 and generated 15% new member growth in 2005 with the new name iQ Credit Union. Talk with Bob Boland, CEO of AltaOne Credit Union in Ridgecrest, CA who changed his credit union's name from Naval Weapons Central Community Federal Credit Union to AltaOne in 1999. Imagine answering that phone before the name change. How about attracting Gen Y members for car loans with a bullet-proof name like Naval Weapons?

We all know JD Powers and Associates for their consumer brand research for the nation's auto brands. In 2006, they expanded that brand knowledge into financial services. And there are MAJOR brand differences between consumer passion for their cars and Harley motorcycles - and their checking accounts and CD's.

Even great brands without intelligent marketing strategy and execution will struggle. 

Beware too that the current branding craze does not replace intelligent research-based marketing and well-focused growth strategies. They should be balanced with both increasing your existing loyal members and targeting future growth prospects. Focusing all your marketing efforts solely on your existing members without mining for younger members, first-time home buyers, or under-banked segments that have not yet established a "banking relationship" can be a time bomb for many credit unions facing an aging and often declining member base, a safety net of high capital, but a deadly downward earnings trend.

Don't make the too common mistake of the board setting an arbitrary number of brand new $50 single-service members in the door (to appease your board), for the need to attract the next generation of borrowers, savers, small business owners and people who will need trusted financial advice and lightning-fast answers and delivery before a before a bank locks them into a great package.

The next time a "brand expert" tells you to turn the clock 30 years back and move back into your shrinking sponsors' cafeteria branch, run for the hills. Or just stick your head in the sand and pretend there aren't new community banks springing up all around you...that non-bank financial competitors like Mango and eLoan won't impact your members...or that intelligent branding and growth marketing decisions - even name changes - sometimes do make sense.

Your marketplace is very dynamic and changes in member's lives require innovative brand strategies and decisions beyond pretty brochures and more staff service training.

Successful brands evolve.

Your credit union's brand is a living, changing being that needs healthy legs, a beating heart - and brains to be sustained and grown. And just like your member's financial lives, a healthy brand requires regular and informed diagnostics, comprehensive growth strategies that look forward - not backward, smart targeted marketing choices and a creative and experienced team guiding it forward.

Understanding how your brand image evolves among members - and especially among your wider communities of SEG's, sponsors and community markets and even the unique needs of members with small businesses and investment properties requires a sound strategic understanding of your current brand position, your target markets, a sound marketing strategy aligned with strategic goals and critical issues like:

  • Are your service satisfaction levels or NPS scores translating into increased share of wallet among existing members, higher prospect referrals and growth monthly?
  • Do you know which member segments are most profitable and have a plan to retain and grow them - and maybe even call them regularly? The old 80-20 rule is now much closer to 11-14% of members generating 90% of all profits. Can you afford to lose even one of them?
  • Who are you targeting to grow the credit union in the future and reach key new prospects? Is your brand helping you, or hindering your ability to reach out and attract them in relevant, meaningful ways that set you apart from the competition?
  • Do they really want to "join" your credit union, or are they looking for value, speed, convenience, 24/7 mobile access, expertise or lower ATM fees?
  • How is your brand being lived out internally to deliver consistently on your "promise" that is a sustainable and evolving competitive advantage? Does your staff even know your unique competitive advantages that are relevant to members and do they share them consistently?

Brands, like your members, are evolving, changing and dynamic. And like your physical health, they require good check ups, smart diagnostics, consistent and well focused energies to keep them on target - and intelligent decision making backing them up.

Is it time for an honest and meaningful brand assessment before your credit union's health starts declining, membership starts shrinking or even a Red Bull can't pump you up?