How To Build Brand One Mouth At A Time

Word-of-mouth, volunteer boards, and press releases replace email blasts, flyers, and media spend at the nation’s second-largest credit union.

A common bond credit union that serves public employees and doesn’t advertise or use social media must be a small operation, right?

Not necessarily.

State Employees’ Credit Union ($28.9B, Raleigh, NC) is the second-largest credit union in the United States, and the Tarheel State financial services giant relies solely on its members and word-of-mouth to spread the word about its products, services, and community involvement.

We don’t buy air; we don’t buy ads,says Leigh Brady, SECU’s executive vice president of organizational development and the closest thing the credit union has to a traditional senior marketing executive.

Instead, SECU’s member education department focuses on financial and consumer education, and its member communication group handles news release distribution and digital messaging. The latter is minimal because the credit union also eschews Facebook and Twitter.

We don’t use social media,Brady says. People don’t visit them to conduct business.

SECU spends much less on marketing expenses and education than the typical billion-dollar credit union, less than $500,000 in the first nine months of 2014, according to Callahan ; Associates. The credit union has nothing against the media in fact, media relations are a big part of its outreach strategy but SECU generates plenty of positive press through its robust philanthropic and public service endeavors.

We try to make the best use of our members’ dollars,Brady says. We don’t view traditional marketing as a way to do that.

So how does SECU maximize its earned PR potential so it can forgo the traditional owned and paid which includes websites, blogs, emails, social, and paid advertising channels?

Three-Pronged Strategy

SECU relies on press releases, official advisory boards, and word-of-mouth ambassadors to get its message out. With nearly 2 million members in a state with just shy of 10 million residents, that’s a lot of mouths.

We think it’s important to get the word out about your organization, but we don’t have formalized, traditional marketing,Brady says. In lieu of that, we try to bring awareness of the organization and the various products and services and our philanthropic work.

Its nearly weekly press releases cover a variety of topics. The thousands of advisory board members and the network of word-of-mouth ambassadors who spring from that also do the trick.

Power Of A Press Release

There’s plenty to write about at SECU, with its advocacy in the industry, consumer services such as the thousands of tax returns its volunteers help prepare each year member education, and extensive work of the SECU Foundation.

Funded by millions of dollars a year in one-dollar-a-month, opt-in donations from members’ checking maintenance fees, the foundation helps build housing for teachers, hospice, and other healthcare centers and fund other local development endeavors across North Carolina.

These are things that make a difference in those communities,Brady says. The members apparently agree because 99% make the monthly donation.

In the past few months, SECU press releases led to front-page coverage in print and online of its car-buying service and of the decentralized contact centers that it has spread around nearly 20 branches, providing employment in areas that need it while giving itself a steady supply of stable workers.

That’s in the general media. The industry media takes notice, too, including picking up on SECU’s late December announcement that it had renovated two dilapidated houses in Greenville, NC, through its real estate arm and with the help of local organizations.

In what the marketing industry calls ad equivalencies, those two media hits alone would be worth thousands of dollars.

Lending Power To Advisory Boards

SECU has been using local advisory boards as mentors and mouthpieces for decades. Now boasting some 3,500 volunteers through all 254 branches, the latest twist is the expansion of its volunteer loan review committees.

As of this summer, SECU had 13 loan review committees with a combined 85 volunteers. It plans to expand that to include one review committee in each of the credit union’s 46 districts and boost the number of board members to 276.

The expansion will make it easier for members who want a committee to review their loan application to meet in person. It also is another way for members people on both sides of the peer loan review table to have a positive experience with SECU that they can then share with the next person, and the next person, and so on.


We depend on word-of-mouth,Brady says. This (the advisory boards and loan panels) is one way we take care of that.

That complements member education, where the focus is on identifying what is and isn’t a good deal, for instance, and on identifying ways for members to better their financial situation overall.

Ideally, each encounter with the credit union gives the member a positive experience to build on. But the exchange of information goes both ways. Brady says local volunteers go beyond site-location software in identifying potential spots for new branches. They also have been crucial in identifying needs the credit union’s foundation can address.

Do It Yourself

To replicate SECU’s success, Brady says begin with the core membership base, garner specific supporters, and build from there.

Word-of-mouth helps highlight the cooperative aspect of our members and how they’re making a difference in North Carolina,Brady says. Just look at the hospice houses we’ve helped build. That provides solace for a family, something you can’t put a dollar value on, and to have our name tied to a project like that says a lot about what earned PR really is.

Learn More

Brady invites other credit unions to contact her for more information about how to leverage their earned media. Contact her at 919.807.8347 or

January 5, 2015

Keep Reading

View all posts in:
More on:
Scroll to Top
Verified by MonsterInsights