Last year, the Credit Union Skeptic and I had a relatively public debate about the appeal of the credit union structure to the public. The Skeptic's take was essentially (paraphrased), "who cares what your structure is? People care about the products, services, and experiences you offer them."
My take was (and is) essentially "everything that makes credit unions great starts with their structure. I’m not talking about organizational structure, I’m talking about constitution – the basic building blocks of what credit unions are. The democratic control of an individual CU, and how each individual institution puts their philosophy into action is what causes differentiation and unique appeal to FOMs."
According to Frank Olivieri of Pat's Famous Steaks in Philadelphia, the Skeptic won that round. Frank says of his legendary steak sandwiches, "if the sandwich wasn't tasty and good, no matter how much passion you have no one would come back to buy it again."
He's right. The structure of Geno's and Pat's would mean absolutely nothing if their food was terrible. Their attitudes wouldn't matter. Their passion for cooking philly cheesesteaks wouldn't matter. While structure does mean something, long lines wrap around these two establishments because people love the product being sold.
Here's why I'm still right. The people in those lines aren't just buying cheesesteaks. Instead, they're buying a piece of Philadelphia. They are buying an experience. If Subway could create an equally great philly cheesesteak, I'd bet you an ice cold Mountain Dew that they still wouldn't be able to attract the huge lines of customers that Geno's and Pat's enjoy.
Structure is important for credit unions not only because of how it engineers our service offerings, but also for how it creates a distinction between what/who we are in business for versus what/who banks are in business for. For the cases in which credit union sandwiches look similar and taste similar to bank sandwiches, structure can be the sales incentive. It's why we buy the ProjectRED iPod instead of the blue one (or Zune). It's why we buy the pink Campbell's Soup can, instead of Progresso brand. It's why we buy our outdoor gear at REI instead of Cabela's.
While our sandwiches should taste better anyway, it's nice to know that we have the power of our structure behind us to sweeten the deal.