What Makes O Bee Credit Union’s New Credit and Debit Cards a Success? ‘It’s the Water,’ and a Whole Lot More

O Bee Credit Union shows what it means to “think local” with its Oly Gold Card.

Rewards and loyalty programs continue to play a crucial role in credit unions’ efforts to grow their credit card business, but experts say it doesn’t hurt to “think local” and tap into the emotional connections that members and non-members feel to the communities where they live.

Nowhere is that more true than in Tumwater, Wash., where a mythical population of “Artesians” made the Olympia Brewing Company and its slogan, “It’s the water,” a true Northwest icon—and where nostalgia for the brand has made a new series of credit and debit cards “hugely popular” for O Bee Credit Union.

“We’ve had an amazing reaction,” says Jennifer Roberts, O Bee’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. “It’s hard to sum up the emotional connection people feel to the brewery.”

Olympia Brewing Company brewed its signature beers in Tumwater from 1896 to 1983, when it was purchased by what would become Pabst Brewing. The brewery continued to operate until its closure in 2003, but Northwest beer drinkers remain loyal to the brand even today.

O Bee unveiled its Oly Gold Card about a year ago; it offers no annual fee, no membership fee, no transaction or cash-advance fees and a 1-percent cash-back program with no limits. Those features certainly played a role in some impressive statistics: O Bee’s total account base is up 7.5 percent, average monthly usage is up 4.7 percent and revenue is up 4.9 percent since the card’s debut.

But Roberts says much of the credit for those statistics—pun absolutely intended—has to go to the Olympia logo on the card, which is now being used by O Bee executives as their corporate card. “Everywhere we go,” she says, “even at a conference in San Diego, people comment on that logo.”

It’s a “cool factor” that has translated into similar success for the credit union’s new Heritage Collection of Visa debit cards, which were just unveiled last week. The cards are proving popular even with younger members, who weren’t old enough to tour the Olympia Brewery when it closed its doors.

“The nostalgia factor absolutely trumps the rewards program,” Roberts says.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Dean Knudtson, a senior portfolio consultant for Card Services for Credit Unions, who urges his clients to create products and develop marketing campaigns that speak to their unique audiences. “Credit unions by nature have a pretty loyal audience,” he says. “By playing off that loyalty, you can build a card program to be ‘top of wallet.’”

That doesn’t mean rewards aren’t important. Knudtson says rewards cards now make up more than half of all credit cards, and rewards trump even low interest rates when consumers choose to apply for a card. But to stay competitive, he says, credit unions need to differentiate themselves from “the big boys” by creating unique products like O Bee’s Oly cards, running frequent and different promotions, and keeping loyalty programs fresh.

Maps Credit Union in Salem, Ore., is doing exactly that, Knudtson says, with a customizable program that features continually updated rewards options. Credit Union Rewards, which offers 24/7 customer support, allows members to create personal wish lists from categories that include Merchandise, Travel and Experience.

“Develop a program that speaks to your members,” Knudtson says, “and it will yield great results in growing your portfolio.”

Want more ideas for portfolio growth? CO-OP Financial Services is inviting credit union executives to its Austin Credit Card Symposium in December, where experts will provide insights into the current status and future prospects of credit card programs.

“This symposium will bring together experts on portfolio and risk management, data analytics and marketing, and rewards programs,” says Jennifer Kerry, vice president of credit card services for CO-OP Financial Services. “We’re offering credit card managers a tremendous opportunity to get their programs off to a fast start in 2014 by providing a forum to network with each other and learn in a highly interactive way from leaders in the field.”

The free symposium, scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 4, in Austin, Texas, will include:

  • Market Update: How to make the most of your credit card program.
  • Your Portfolio: What hidden nuggets can help you manage both risk and growth?
  • Loyalty Programs: Influence members’ behaviors and help achieve your credit union’s goals.
  • Focus on the Member: Emerging payment services your members will expect.

For more information or to register, go to www.co-opfs.org/AustinSymposium


Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

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