The credit union industry is on fire — in a good way. Merger and acquisition (M&A) activity has heated up in this once sleepy corner of the financial services industry, along with other measures of vitality:
- The pace of mergers in the sector has increased, from 130 in 2020 to 161 in 2021 and 181 in 2022.
- While the number of credit unions has shrunk with this consolidation, CU assets have risen. Going back to 1979, there were more than 10,000 credit unions with assets of less than $1 million in the U.S, and only three with $1 billion. By the end of 2022, the number of federally insured credit unions had shrunk to about 4,800 (compared to around 4,100 banks), but 421 of them had assets of at least $1 billion, the NCUA reported.
- Year over year, total assets in federally insured credit unions rose more than 5% in 2022, to $2.17 trillion.
A growing slice of that M&A activity and asset growth involves credit unions buying banks. That type of deal hit a new high of 16 in 2022, S&P Global reported. Erin Slater, Quad’s Head of Strategy for Financial Services, notes that there are a variety of reasons for this activity, including credit unions adopting more aggressive growth strategies, challenges with succession planning for family-owned banks and the contraction of the community bank market.
Is there a downside to this growth?
Growth always entails new marketing challenges.
“Any time two businesses merge, there’s the challenge of carrying forward relevant brand messaging and connecting with new audiences in a meaningful way, but it’s also exciting because of the opportunities the merger creates,” Slater says. “Especially when credit unions acquire banks, there’s the opportunity to lean into educating consumers on the advantages a credit union offers them.”
While both banks and credit unions are financial services businesses, banks are for-profit institutions (whether public or private) with a duty to increase value for their shareholders, and they’re insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Credit unions are not-for-profit, tax-exempt businesses owned by their members, insured by the NCUA.
As membership organizations, credit unions typically charge lower interest rates on loan products, including mortgages and credit cards, and offer higher rates on savings products than banks do. But they also historically have had a smaller variety of products and services. And today, their loan interest rates are often higher and savings rates lower than what online-only banks offer.
Under federal rules, credit union membership used to be restricted to certain communities — for example, people who belonged to a specific union, served in a branch of the military or graduated from a state university. But in recent years the federal government has loosened those restrictions. That’s good for credit unions wanting to grow their membership, but it also means a less cohesive — and potentially less loyal — membership base.
For credit unions immersed in the regulatory and compliance issues involved in completing an acquisition or merger, the role of marketing teams may not be top of mind, but it’s crucial to ultimate success. Here’s a look at three marketing challenges facing credit unions undertaking a merger, and how to get ahead of them.
Local market intelligence and execution
A key reason credit unions are pursuing acquisitions is to add members and branches in new locations. That often means entering unfamiliar markets.
“Every market has different media opportunities, different media costs, different competitive situations, different audience laydowns,” says Earl Potter, Quad Senior Vice President of Media Analytics. An in-depth, data-driven understanding of those differences will help ensure success for a new combined credit union organization because it enables the most effective use of channels and the best return on ad spend (ROAS).
Getting accurate market-specific communications into the field while staying true to the new brand identity is another challenge. One solution is to centralize marketing resources while still empowering local staff to use what’s best for their specific markets. Quad created a Local Marketing Platform (LMP) that offers such functionality. Pre-loaded with approved, brand-consistent and compliant templates, the platform integrates every aspect of this process and automatically responds to each request.
“We can fully automate content creation, in a specified format linked to the exact geo of the media execution,” explains George Forge, Vice President of Client Technology at Quad, who managed development of the platform. “As soon as the media buy is secured, the content is created dynamically. This helps ensure that all key deadlines are met.”
Whenever two financial services businesses merge, regulators mandate a variety of legal notices to their customers. But those notices tend to be couched in lawyerly language. Consumers may not read them — and even if they do, the notices don’t necessarily address all their concerns about the deal: What does this mean for me? What exactly is going to change? Why do I want to be a member of a credit union? What’s going to happen to my local branch? And so on. Neglecting to fully answer those questions risks losing customers.
Marketers need to develop a communications strategy that conveys the merged brands’ new identity — what the combined institution stands for, its values and what changes consumers can expect in the near and long term. Everything is potentially on the table — a new logo, slogan, the graphic look and feel of communications, information about new products and services. In a merger scenario, over-communication, using multiple channels, helps reassure customers and reduce churn.
Tapping an outside resource to help with communications lets credit unions focus internal resources on the many regulatory and compliance issues involved in mergers. Look for an outside agency that has broad expertise and capabilities in developing a brand strategy and executing it across a range of offline and online channels, including social media and direct mail, to strengthen relationships with current and new customers.
Deadlines play a big role in financial services communications, both in merger situations and in the audience development that can follow mergers. For the latter, federal rules require that any time an individual’s credit file is pulled, the institution that accesses that information must get an offer to that consumer within 90 days.
Direct mail has consistently proved to be the most effective channel for making that offer. And that necessitates finding an experienced partner who can streamline the production and delivery of printed material into consumers’ homes. Ideally this would be a partner with through-the-line capabilities that can handle creating, producing and fulfilling accurate communications, and with expertise in holding down mailing costs.
Industry observers predict heightened competition among financial service institutions —coupled with consumer demands for new products, services, security and efficiency — will continue to drive credit union merger activity, according to The Financial Brand. Implementing a strong marketing M&A strategy laser-focused on authentically communicating credit unions’ value proposition and brand messaging can be a differentiator in a crowded competitive landscape.