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President and CEO of Atlantic Central, the trade association for credit unions in Atlantic Canada

Competing in business is never easy. But competing as the underdog adds a layer of complication. It’s an uphill battle for customer attention when your competition has more resources, more reach and more influence in the market.

It’s a challenge we face every day in the Atlantic credit union system. As a network of independently owned and operated co-operative financial institutions, credit unions offer services including mortgages, loans, wealth management and more – just about everything that big banks offer. We’re also competing for the same customers as those big banks. This means we’ve learned a thing or two over the years about how to stand out, how to reach an audience and how to keep them. We don’t have the same budget, scale or resources as the big banks – and it turns out, that’s okay.

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For us, a big part is connecting our corporate strategy to our values, then making sure those values align with what our employees care about – their communities. Supporting each community in which we operate is ingrained in the way we work as co-operatives. Part of our role as financial institutions is to support our communities in valuable and meaningful ways, driven by real need – whether that’s helping a new small business get off the ground or making sure our neighbours have access to free financial literacy programs. It’s easy for our employees to get behind how we do business, because when the communities in which they live and work succeed, so do they.

Start with your values

Standing behind your values isn’t just important for employees. It sounds simple, but today’s consumers are savvier than ever. They’re looking for brands they can trust, that have values that align with theirs and that they can relate to. They’re asking for authenticity and transparency, and for brands that stand for something. So while you’re focused on what you’re selling, you should also be asking, “What do I stand for?”

For credit unions, our customer relationship is a little different. Because our members are also our owners, when we profit, they profit, too – and those profits stay local. Our values are all about building trust and doing what’s right for our members and, in turn, our communities. And that’s translated into the story we tell as a brand.

Define your story and deliver on it

Think about some of the major brands that have had staying power over the last decade. We know Nike, for example, is selling quality sportswear, but their story is all about the emotion that comes with dedication to sport – determination and perseverance.

Just as important as a compelling, inspiring or emotional brand story is the ability to deliver on it – to prove that you are who you say you are. For credit unions, our story is about honesty, trust and fairness. Our competitors are focused on products, services and technology – not that we aren’t, too – but they also have the budget and scale to be able to stand on those alone.

We stand out by ensuring our story is the differentiator. One of the benefits of being small is that you’re also nimbler. You’re able to walk the talk of your brand story and have greater control over how it’s executed. We make sure the story of our values of honesty, trust and fairness are a part of every single thing we do, from the way we offer financial advice to the way we treat our employees.

As part of our employee communications, we often talk about what those brand values really mean in the practical sense. For credit unions, it’s about doing what’s right for our members and giving honest advice – and sometimes tough advice – even if it’s at the expense of making a sale.

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And when it comes to our corporate social responsibility efforts, we look to our communities to drive how we give. Employees are given time to support the local initiatives they care about and we have the flexibility to ask the communities we operate in how they need support. So whether we’re helping a co-operative daycare open its doors or offering free community workshops about budgeting, building credit and planning for the future, it’s about looking at how we can give back in a useful way, without promoting our products or services.

Find your allies

Having a message that resonates is critical, but when people like what they hear and want to check you out, you need to be competitive. In our industry that means building scale and sharing investments in new technologies and products through collaboration. I know it can be challenging to connect with others, and sharing your work and your ideas with competitors can feel counterintuitive, but if you have a common goal, why go it alone? Organizations that share objectives and challenges can be natural collaborators, and when working together, they can deliver better experiences for customers.

For credit unions, we know we need to deliver competitive products, services and an exceptional user experience to compete. We’re also much smaller than our competitors. Size brings certain advantages, but collaboration allows us to scale up. I call it building “co-operative scale.” By working together, we can act like a $225-billion organization while still retaining our local focus and values.

So, even if it’s a tough road ahead, it’s worth remembering that being small can be a secret weapon. No matter what industry you’re in, what service you’re offering or what product you’re selling, just because you’re not as big as your competitors doesn’t mean you can’t compete.

My advice to smaller organizations is to develop a compelling message about how you are different from your competitors and to think more broadly about who might be your natural collaboration partners. When it comes to smaller firms competing against corporate giants, there are a lot of us out there. We can do great things when we work together.

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