CU Leaders' Assumptions Get Challenged

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.–In the credit union business, the focus is overwhelmingly on the word “credit. But that’s the wrong word in the name on which to focus, according to one person, who was outspoken in challenging all kinds of other traditional assumptions, as well including why CUs should think “small,” why the marketing funnel should be turned upside down, what it means to lead, and more. 

“You can’t get people to do something that they might want to do, but you can get them to do something they do want to do,” said Seth Godin, who called on credit union leaders to rethink just about everything they are about, with an emphasis on one particular point: CUs are not about savings accounts or “credit.” 

Feature Godin

“I would suggest what you make is stories,” said Godin in remarks to CO-OP’s THINK 19 Conference here. 

Godin, the author of Purple Cow and 18 other books that examine the post-mass market marketplace, leadership and the ways ideas now spread, added, “Stories make a difference, and difference makes a change.”

But to tell those stories, it will require leadership, not management, Godin cautioned. 

“Leadership is about going to the place you haven’t gone and not knowing if it will work. Management is about doing what you did yesterday,” he said.

Leadership Mistake

What many companies and “leaders” mistakenly continue to persist in doing, Godin told the meeting, is using the word “more,” as in more marketshare, more yield, and more members, all of which leads to “more pressure,” even if it’s all misdirected. 

“Why make average stuff? Because we want to reach everyone,” said Godin. “But the world has shifted. The Internet is good news and bad news. The good news is everyone on earth can now be your customer. The bad news is everyone on earth can now be your competitor.”

It’s Not About the Cats

As an example of how a story is told and how credit union executives need to rethink their approach, Godin pointed to Fancy Feast cat food.

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“Fancy Feast cat food isn’t for cats—if it was it would be mouse-flavored–it’s for cat owners, for how it makes owners feel about what kind of human they are,” suggested Godin. “It’s not about being a careful shopper; it’s about being a caring person. The point is you are buying a story.”

At the credit union level, the story is likely not told well or told at all, according to Godin.

“You’ve been at a meeting where someone says we need to raise rates and pay more. And someone smart stands up and says no, that’s a race to the bottom, and we might win, or worst, come in second,” said Godin. “The only option is to be the irreplaceable. And that’s not about being fastest and priciest. Sort by price is not your friend. You will never win.

“The most important word in credit union isn’t credit, credit is super easy to get right now,” he continued. “The most important word is union. It’s about what it means to belong to something.”

Status Roles

According to Godin, money is a story, and credit unions are interwoven in the tale(s). But how to begin the story? Godin recommended asking two questions: Who’s it for and what’s it for. 

Getting Smaller

Throughout his remarks Godin argued the long-held strategy of nearly all companies to target the mass market through mass appeals simply no longer works and is now counterproductive. In other words, a CU may have expanded in order to have a huge field of membership, but the CU must really be thinking in opposite terms. 

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Seth Godin speaking to THINK 19 meeting in Miami Beach.

“Why are so many financial services marketers spamming everyone?” he asked. “The (product marketing) curve is melting. People in the middle are ignoring you. People are moving to the edges, and the people on the extremes are the ones shopping around. So why are you staying in the middle? Too often, financial institutions say, ‘You can choose anyone, and we are anyone,’ and if that’s what you’re saying, you’re doomed. There is an ‘anyone’ who is closer; there is an ‘anyone’ who is cheaper.” 

Challenging the Funnel

Godin further challenged the traditional concept of the marketing funnel, which focuses on the broad top of the funnel with a goal of pushing customers out of the other, narrow end. 

“That’s not the answer,” he said. “The answer is to take the funnel, turn it around and make it a megaphone, and hand it to your best customers and let them tell your story. The idea we can become a human to someone creates remarkability. You win not by going after the largest possible audience, but the smallest possible audience you can live with. If you can delight those people and blow them away, they will tell the others. And only then can you make the impact you seek.”

Four Words

Godin offered four words to credit unions to think about as they map their way forward in an evolving marketplace:


A Zula word, sowubana means “I see you,” but more than just in the physical sense of the person present. It also means “I see your parents and grandparents before you. I see your feelings,” explained Godin. “Is there anything your customers want more than to be truly seen, not as a number but as a person?”


Enrollment is about the journey. “Who is enrolled in the journey with you?” asked Godin. “If you are one basis point better or one click better, that’s not enough to earn my enrollment.”

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Seth Godin at THINK 19 conference.


This is all about eliminating stress and making the story better.


“Dignity,” said Godin, “is something that can only be given; it can’t be taken. It’s about honoring the consumer and giving them choices and treating them the way they want to be treated.”

The Connection Revolution

Every credit union is competing in a market that can best be summed up by companies such as Venmo, said Godin, that connect people to one another. 

That connection is a critical piece of the credit union story, he suggested. “Human beings like doing what other human beings are doing. Your challenge is to connect them and commit in clear language to what’s on offer here. It won’t appeal to everyone. And that’s fine.”

Similarly, the concepts presented also won’t appeal to everyone—in fact, there will be pushback–and that will require leadership to get the credit union to understand the changes that have occurred, he said. 

“You have a chance to make things better by making better things,” he said, emphasizing again that what has gotten the credit union to where it is now likely won’t get it to where it needs to be tomorrow. 
“Your competence is overrated,” he said. “It is not scarce. As soon as I can write down a job, I can find someone cheaper than you. You can’t say you have the best rates, because you don’t. You can’t say you are open 24 hours a day and that’s more minutes than anyone else.”

Failure IS An Option

For those inspired by his words, Godin said it simply won’t work if a THINK attendee returns to work and says, “We need innovation and failure is not an option.”

“But if failure is not an option then neither is success,” he said. “You are innovating again and again. The person who invented the ship also invented the shipwreck. There is a big difference between being ready and being prepared. All of you are prepared, none of you are ready for a revolution.”

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For those credit unions that pride themselves on avoiding being first and being fast-followers instead, Godin said, “It’s always too soon to go first. What the market is demanding from you is more hubris, not less. Instead of going to work and being in fear of being creative, say ‘I’m too busy being creative to be afraid.’”

Imposter Fraud

Taking leadership always comes with doubt, according to Godin.

“People will think, ‘I’m a fraud.’ But here is the thing about Imposter Fraud. When you get that feeling, you’re right,” he said. “When you are leading, you can’t be sure, and that feeling is a symptom you’re on to something. Some people, you give them a mile, they take an inch. But there are people waiting for you to make things better.”

Lunar Footprints

Godin reminded that in 1969 when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, the sum total of NASA’s computing power was less than that in the devices credit union executives were carrying in their pockets. 
“And yet there are footprints on the moon,” he said.  

Section: Standard
Word Count: 1989
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Copyright Year: 2019
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