How credit unions are using fintech to build their brands

Big banks are leading the customer satisfaction race for the first time in forever, in part because they’re winning at digital user experience. For anyone even slightly familiar with the cost of innovation, this shouldn’t come as a shock. After all, megabanks have the capital they need to invest in new technologies.

Smaller financial service providers like community banks and credit unions don’t have that kind of capital lying around, and as such are largely unable to compete with big bank’s digital UX. Moreover, unfair Core IT contracts make it challenging for some of these institutions to integrate cutting-edge technology into their banking services in the first place.

How, then, can smaller institutions gain traction in the online and mobile customer experience track? For credit unions, at least, the answer is in their charter. “They’re unique in that their legal structure and their philosophical objectives are different than a for-profit bank,” said Andrew Downin, CPA  and managing director of innovation at Filene Research Institute. “Credit unions are not-for-profit financial institutions, which means that they’re primarily aimed at serving their members’ needs.”

With members, not profit, as the epicenter of the credit union galaxy, credit unions are getting into creative apps tailored to members’ unmet needs, and building strong brand identities in the process. 25-year-old nonprofit Filene vets apps and technology for their partner credit unions, helping them focus on the most promising of the bunch for their members.

One such app that Filene recommends for credit unions is Larky. Using GPS, the Ann Arbor, MI-based app connects credit union members with relevant offers that the credit union has negotiated with local merchants. So if a member walks past a Dairy Queen, for instance, a Larky notification will pop up on the screen to offer a 15 percent discount on a meal there if the member pays with her credit union debit or credit card.

“The challenge is getting trying to get credit unions’ brand identity out to their customers at the exact moment when customers can benefit from that account and that relationship,” explained Downin. According to Downin, Larky has generated positive responses from CUs, their members, and the merchants involved. And while it bolsters loyalty, Larky financially rewards the CUs themselves by shifting transaction behavior from competitor credit cards to the credit unions’ cards.

Credit unions are also using big data to build their brands as member-serving institutions that care about their members’ well-being. For example, credit unions can use big data to look for a group of members that have high-rate loans with a payday provider, and then use algorithms to send them a message suggesting that they move their debt to a credit union for a lower-priced loan.

“Credit unions can leverage the big data trend in a way that for-profit institutions might not necessarily look at,” said Downin.

Filene hasn’t forsaken small-data, either. It’s developing an app called Centsus, which will use surveys to assess individual members’ happiness with their purchases and suggest shopping practices to make them happier in the future. Similarly, Filene promotes app SavvyMoney, a personalized financial education resource for CU members, to help members manage their finances.

The innovation required by credit unions to access these and other new technologies is admittedly a risky endeavor, Downin said. By bringing credit unions to work together to innovate, Filene “distributes some of the risk across multiple credit unions. We can begin to close that technology gap.”

For credit unions, then, closing the technology gap isn’t just about recruiting more members. Rather, fintech is helping credit unions build their brands as the wellness gurus of the industry.

Megabanks can’t claim that title for themselves. Yet.