A Cooperative Spin On Marketing: CU Partners with Local Biz

David Williams, Chief Marketing and Human Resources Officer for Community First CU   
David Williams, Chief Marketing and Human Resources Officer for Community First CU  

In an article published this week, CreditUnions.com featured Community First CU Chief Marketing and Human Resources Officer David Williams, headquartered in Santa Rosa, CA.

Lots of credit unions offer emergency loans, but not many include power outages among the reasons a member might need quick, interest-free help.

That’s the case at Community First ($715 million in assets), which serves a northern California community beset by more than its fair share of challenges, including wildfires, mudslides, earthquakes, and power outages.

“We have a standing deal to offer any member $1,200 on the spot — zero interest, zero fees, one year to pay back — who has been impacted by a fire, flood, or PG&E power outage because they might need to immediately buy food or clothes or pay rent,” says David Williams, the credit union’s chief marketing and HR officer.

The credit union’s wine-country home base of Sonoma County is also near San Francisco, and housing affordability as well as the generally expensive cost-of-living is a challenge for many residents and businesses, too. Community First’s response is to meet members where they are with products and services that serve their needs while working to sustain the community.

But the 62-year-oold cooperative doesn’t work alone. For example, Community First joined with the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and Community Partnership Action of Sonoma County to set up matching grants to local businesses affected by wildfire devastation that in some cases consumed entire towns.

Community First Has A GO LOCAL Attitude
Community First’s work with local businesses also includes serving as one of five major sponsors of the Sonoma County GO LOCAL cooperative marketing program, which launched 12 years ago to provide economic development marketing for locally owned, independent businesses.

“It was paramount for our financial cooperative to join a marketing cooperative to further our messaging and reach to consumers who wanted to support local businesses that were doing the right thing for consumers and who were giving back and helping to rebuild and revitalize the communities where they lived,” Williams says.

The 568 businesses participating in the program — Williams says approximately half of them actively — provide discounts to consumers who use a GO LOCAL rewards card. Community First puts a GO LOCAL decal on debit cards it issues in Sonoma County, and Williams says at least a thousand members make a purchase at one of them each month.

“The fit and complementary nature of our two cooperatives — one financial and the other marketing — has helped make Community First the financial equivalent of our local farmers markets or craft brewers,” Williams says.

Keeping deposits, loans, and spending local helps keep profits local, create local jobs, and generate local taxes for the common good, the Community First marketing executive adds, a powerful message “once people take the time to focus on it.”

“GO LOCAL helps us get that message across every day,” he says.

Positive Guilt by Association
Indeed, perhaps the most powerful impact for the credit union itself, Williams says, is the scale that participating in the marketing cooperative gives to the credit union’s advertising and branding work.

The credit union places full-page ads in the Made Local magazine that comes out six times a year and in the twice-yearly GO LOCAL Pocket Guide, Williams says.

“GO LOCAL gets us the economies of scale we need to do video production, radio buys, and outdoor buys that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to fund solo,” the marketing officer says.

According to Williams, it’s difficult to quantify how much business the credit union has gained from GO LOCAL, but he says it gives Community First “favored” status among consumers for whom that matters and participation has attracted new members, including auto and home loan borrowers.

“Cooperatively marketing with GO LOCAL gets our message out more broadly, more frequently, and with positive guilt by association,” he adds. “It paints us as being one of the ‘local financial’ good guys,’ a line I’ve used in our marketing throughout the years.” 

More Pieces of the Puzzle
Community First does not offer business services beyond serving some legal cannabis enterprises, Williams says, but its formal work with other underserved consumers of financial products goes back nearly 20 years, to 2004 when it became a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

“We saw it as an opportunity to reach out and serve underserved local populations, including the farm worker community, Native Americans, and the generally low-income populations of inland Mendocino County and all of Lake County,” Williams says.

Since then, Community First has received two grants totaling $3.5 million to provide capital while creating new products and services, and it has worked with the FHLB in San Francisco to sponsor other non-profits seeking grants to help provide affordable housing in the area.

The cooperative also has earned the Juntos Avanzamos designation from Inclusiv and since 2012 has been designated a low-income credit union (LICU) by the NCUA and state regulators, which includes making it eligible for other grants and low-interest loans targeted at community development.

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