MINSK, Belarus — Credit unions in Belarus rely heavily on "social networking" to spread their marketing message, but their efforts have little to do with computers or Internet-based programs. Old fashioned word-of-mouth is the key method by which members in the former Soviet satellite nation learn about credit union rates and services, according to one U.S. credit union marketer who recently visited Belarus to help boost the country's credit union marketing efforts.
Cindy Schrader, marketing director for Heritage Credit Union in Madison, Wis. (USA), traveled to Belarus last week to share her marketing expertise as a member of the Global Women's Leadership Network, a joint initiative by World Council of Credit Unions and the Canadian Cooperative Association to bring together women leaders from credit unions worldwide to share mutually beneficial ideas and solutions. The network sponsored Schrader's visit due to the growing demand for marketing knowledge in countries in transition, according to Brian Branch, World Council president and CEO.
"Many things credit unions in western countries take for granted are new to credit unions in nations like Belarus," Branch said. "I am pleased that the Global Women's Leadership Network was able to provide the necessary expertise to assist credit unions there."
Credit unions in Belarus are small and have very limited resources on which they can draw, said Schrader, a 10-year Heritage Credit Union veteran. Lack of general awareness about credit unions and their benefits have made it a challenge for Belarusian credit unions to grow.
"Credit unions are spreading their message through members, their business association and education," Schrader said. "With many credit unions run by only one or two people, they do not have dedicated staff to help get the word out."
The country's credit unions also face other challenges. Credit unions pay an income tax that banks are not required to pay. The high cost of funds sometimes makes credit union loan rates higher than those of banks. Despite the challenges, Belarusian credit unions are becoming an increasingly critical resource for consumers with whom banks will not do business, making them part of the country's social fabric and increasing marketing's importance, Schrader said.
"Marketing is a brand new idea to many people, and they are grasping the concept and understanding the difference" Schrader said. "Hopefully, I taught them to think differently and put themselves in the shoes of members they are trying to reach."
While Schrader met with representatives from the Republican Association of Consumer Cooperatives for Mutual Financial Assistance, Belarus' credit union trade association and a World Council member, she focused on target and life-stage marketing, helping credit unions understand the nature and needs of the members they serve. By marketing to member needs rather than focusing on the financial products themselves, credit unions could more effectively extend their reach. Limited marketing resources make targeting specific members even more important to credit union success, she said.
"The credit unions need to work toward developing top-of-mind awareness by keeping the credit union name in front of both members and potential members," Schrader said. "There as well as here, when a financial need arises, members need to think of the credit union first."
For Schrader herself, the visit to Belarus was eye-opening and helped reaffirm her commitment to credit unions.
"There have been many times in my current position that the credit union philosophy has warmed my heart," Schrader said. "To see it at work on a grander scale helping lower-income people, funding company startups and offering members a real opportunity to fulfill a dream is inspiring."
For more information on the Global Women's Leadership Network, visit www.CUwomen.org.
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 105 countries serve 217 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.