Charter flight Featured

8:00pm EDT May 23, 2005
Your company name.

You carefully create it, and you, your employees and your customers identify with it. You protect it and promote it. You enjoy the cachet that the years or decades in the marketplace bestows upon it. It becomes a term that is instantly recognizable and trusted, inextricably tied to your brand and your reputation.

And then you find you have to change it.

That's where US Airways Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in Western Pennsylvania, found itself as the fortunes of the airline that it shared a name with began to flag. Even though the fate of its original sponsor, US Airways, would have no direct impact on the fortunes of the 80,000-member credit union, the name association with the financially troubled airline was threatening to stifle its growth over the long term.

Although the credit union had been enlisting employer groups other than that of US Airways since the early 1990s, attrition created by the plight of US Airways was threatening to erode its membership.

The credit union, however, wasn't about to turn its back on the core of its membership. About 25,000 US Airways employees, generating about 35,000 members for the credit union, still reside within Clearview's 10-county service area in Western Pennsylvania. That's the largest concentration of Clearview's membership, which also operates in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.

"They are still a large percentage of our credit union, and they are also the history of this credit union," says Mark Brennan, president and CEO of Clearview Federal Credit Union, the name US Airways Federal Credit Union adopted last year.

The changes at the credit union involve not only a new name and identity but a fundamental shift in the way it recruits members, with a shift away from dependence solely on employer groups to an emphasis on marketing to the general public within its geographic service area.

"We had gotten to the point where we understood that if something happened to the airline, we wanted the impact to be minimal on us," says Ralph Canterbury, vice president of technology and marketing for Clearview.

US Airways Federal Credit Union had enjoyed its position as the largest federally chartered credit union in Western Pennsylvania -- with nearly $600 million in assets, one of the largest in the state -- due chiefly to the large number of US Airways employees residing in the region. The former name had been a distinct advantage in recruiting members, given that US Airways is one of the largest airlines in the country.

But the legacy carriers, including US Airways, have struggled financially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, furloughing thousands of workers in an effort to cut costs. And while the credit union has no direct financial connection to US Airways, Canterbury says rancor on the part of employees laid off by the airline has resulted in a number of them severing their ties with the credit union as well.

"I think in a lot of cases there are a lot of hard feelings toward US Airways," says Canterbury, adding that many have expressed a desire to make a "clean break" from the airline.

With the distinct possibility that the 200-employee credit union would find it hard to grow or even retain its membership, its management began to consider alternatives that would allow it to grow, with or without a strong US Airways. One of the critical changes necessary, the leadership decided, was to convert to a community charter, which allows the credit union to extend membership beyond employee groups to any individuals who "live, work, worship, volunteer or attend school" in Allegheny County and nine surrounding counties.

"We began looking at different opportunities within the regulatory structure of credit unions, and it became apparent to us that a community charter was probably our best solution," says Canterbury.

The other key was to adopt a new name, and the credit union enlisted the help of a consultant who helps businesses select new names and identities. The consultant offered about 30 potential choices; the credit union narrowed it to four and conducted focus groups with members to determine which had the most appeal.

"It was important to us that our members understood why we needed to change the name," Canterbury says. "Really, to a member, they pretty much understood that."

Having a strong rationale for a name change is an important factor in gaining its acceptance. Members, employees or customers will more readily embrace a new name if there's an apparent strong rationale for it, says Andrea Fitting, principal with the Fittingroup, an advertising and marketing communications firm that specializes in branding.

"One of the things that makes it easier is to have a good story," says Fitting.

The name Clearview, suggesting that the credit union had a "clear view" of its members' financial goals and concerns, resonated most favorably with the focus groups. The credit union discovered that its members' chief concern was whether they were still going to receive the same level of service from the people they had become accustomed to dealing with, says Christianne Gribben, Clearview's assistant vice president of marketing and business development.

Next, the credit union enlisted The Webb Law Firm, which practices intellectual property law exclusively. The Webb Law Firm investigated the names to see how they had been used, if at all, in the financial services industry and generally. Once the credit union settled on Clearview, an "intent to use" application was filed, a "stake in the ground," explains patent attorney Julie Meder.

She recommended that the credit union register individual trademarks for Clearview, Clearview with three curved lines, and the curved lines themselves. The familiar Nike "swoosh," which enjoys wide recognition, illustrates the value of carving out individual elements of a trademark, Meder says, and thus the wisdom of protecting them.

"It's an opportunity to have greater protection," says Meder.

A matter of education

Brennan sees consumer education as a critical piece of the process of enlisting new members. Overcoming the misconceptions about credit unions unions services and their capability to serve a variety of financial needs will be key in that process, he says.

"The biggest challenge is letting folks in the community know what credit unions are first," says Brennan. "A lot of folks have a misconception of what credit unions are. They think they're mom-and-pop operations."

Last fall, the credit union initiated a brand awareness campaign to announce the name change through direct mail to members and nonmembers, print ads and TV and radio commercials during the first quarter of this year. The first year's priority, says Canterbury, is to focus on reinforcing the name and identity change.

The marketing effort will shift toward product and service oriented advertising and building awareness of the two new branch offices Clearview plans to open in the South Hills and the Beaver Valley this year and a third slated to open in 2006.

To date, says Canterbury, the response to the new name has been almost entirely positive.

The hardest work may still be ahead, however, as the credit union attempts to grow its membership. Some of the advantages of credit unions -- in some cases, less expensive fees, lower interest rates on loans and higher dividend rates on savings -- may be attractive to potential members. Canterbury acknowledges that Clearview will have to look and act more like a commercial bank to attract customers who are used to handling their personal finances in a traditional banking environment.

With less emphasis on signing employee groups and the threat of its core membership of US Airways employees continuing to shrink, Clearview is going toe-to-toe with traditional banks on their turf, attempting to capture new customers one by one. While its new status provides new opportunities, it also means that Clearview will have to offer something attractive enough to entice new members to pass up its deep-pocketed competitors to join it.

Says Canterbury: "Clearly, we have to provide the same products and services that banks offer."

Because of its limited branch network and the wide disbursement of its membership, Clearview early on embraced technology to encourage and accommodate online banking. Many US Airways employee members, comfortable with using computers, readily accepted online banking.

The result is a responsive IT system to serve its members, a factor that could help overcome the perceived disadvantage of banking with an institution with a limited branch network.

And Brennan is keenly aware of the competition, as are they cognizant of Clearview's presence. Some of the big banks have approached Clearview to partner on products and services, Brennan says. That's an indication that the credit union reaches into a large and lucrative market that the commercial players want to reach and that the big players acknowledge Clearview as a competitive factor in the marketplace.

Says Brennan: "PNC knows we're here, Citizens knows we're here."

How to reach:Clearview Federal Credit Union, www.clearviewfcu.org; The Webb Law Firm, www.webblaw.com, Fitting Group, www.fittingroup.com