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Credit unions: Alternative marketing for an alternative service

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Affinity has found one-on-one time with potential customers is best way to grow.
Affinity has found one-on-one time with potential customers is best way to grow. - (AFFINITY)

Affinity Federal Credit Union has tried billboards for its marketing to no valuable end. They are experimenting with TV commercials.

And while they know their 15 branches spread out across the state help get the Affinity name out there, they knew they needed something more. And they weren't afraid to use non-traditional marketing measures to promote awareness of their non-traditional banking services.

That's why the crux of their marketing strategy this past year was built around a sponsorship deal with the New York Red Bulls soccer team.

At each game, Affinity set up a booth in front Red Bull Arena in Harrison where kids could come kick soccer balls like the pros and enter for free giveaways. Meanwhile, staffers from Affinity got quality time, face to face, with loads of potential customers to educate them about what exactly makes Affinity — and credit unions in general — different.

Affinity President and CEO John Fenton said that education component is critical because it's not enough to make sure a credit union's name is splashed far and wide. Especially in a market so dominated by other financial institutions, many people — sometimes even a credit unions' own customers — don't fully understand what makes a credit union different from a bank.

"It's not about how much you spend; it's about how much you interact with people," Fenton said. "That will help the awareness or the challenge to get the message out."

While banks are for-profit institutions, credit unions are not-for-profit. There are nearly 200 of them in the state of New Jersey, and they are governed by a stricter set of rules and regulations than banks.

And although many people associate credit unions with consumer and not commercial clients, up to 12.25 percent of their assets can consist of business loans.

"It is a challenge, especially for business loans because businesses automatically think that they have to deal with a bank. That's not necessarily the case," said Linda McFadden, president and CEO of XCEL Federal Credit Union.

"We can't take on the risk of a million or $2 million business loan," she said. "We would rather do the smaller business loans that the banks really aren't interested in."

To get that message out, XCEL belongs to five different chambers of commerce. It is active in various committees and participates in panel discussions geared toward financing and small businesses.

That helps XCEL spread the word about the credit union alternative — and it generates new clients.

One of those discussions brought a local Servpro franchisee to XCEL in search of a loan to finance the purchase of a new truck. He told executives from XCEL he had tried going through a bank but failed to hear back from anyone several months after submitting his application, McFadden said.

"It wasn't a high dollar amount," she said. "So when he contacted us, we were able to do it and have it close in a week."

"I think that credit unions excel in getting businesses that one-on-one personal service," she added. "We work and we get to know the local businesses that we deal with and build the relationships from there."

Beyond the marketing strategies of individual credit unions, there is also a group effort underway to educate the public about what these institutions have to offer, through a cooperative ad campaign called "Banking You Can Trust," said Greg Michlig, president and CEO of the New Jersey Credit Union League.

"There is a collaborative spirit that is prevalent throughout the industry. Because credit unions place highest value on returning benefit to their members, there is a strong willingness to work together for the greater good," Michlig said in an email. "This campaign allows credit unions to pool resources in an effort to raise their collective voice."

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