While it hasn’t really been a secret, the official news release just came out regarding changes to enforcement* of an OSFI regulation that bans the use of the word “bank” (literally stated as “Bank Words”) from any financial institution that is not considered a traditional bank; including all variations of the word such as the verb “banking”. Not surprisingly, credit unions across Canada are speaking out en-masse against the change, with the hashtag #Ibankwithacreditunion being used by hundreds of individuals across the country.

This goes far beyond just changing a term for your services or coming up with a new tag line. What this really will do is hurt every credit union’s ability to stay competitive.

From our perspective? It’s not a surprising move, really. Banks are losing ground in many areas to new financial service providers, so it makes sense to lash out at those who are eating up the market share. The trouble is that it's just plain ridiculous. It smacks of school yard bullying by the biggest kid who decides nobody should have pudding cups but him. I understand that if you want to have “bank” in your corporate name you need to be regulated as such. But to suggest that a service more frequently used as a verb than to describe a place of business is no longer usable by those who provide that service is simply ludicrous.

It’s not JUST a word

If you haven’t realized it yet, this goes far beyond just changing a term for your services or coming up with a new tag line. What this really will do is hurt every credit union’s ability to stay competitive. A good deal of growing market share means being recognizable in the marketplace. To even be an option, customers need to be able to find you. These days, that demands having a good online presence with a solid keyword strategy linking to what people are looking for.

In layman’s terms, customers generally search for the terms they know best, such as “bank account.” A quick Google Trends search for “bank account” vs. “chequing account” proves that public searches are vastly more frequent for the former. Even when changing to the Americanized “checking” it vastly underperforms the more common terminology. It’s like Nike trademarking the term “running shoes” and forcing all other companies to come up with a new term for what they sell.

For CUs having to suddenly redefine what they do, this is going to cause a laundry-list of problems for their online strategy; and, (I predict) a mind-numbing amount of time spent trying to explain to customers that they don’t offer “banking” services anymore, but “account services” or “money keeping and handling” services. "The credit union formerly known as..."?

So. Can you REALLY trademark a verb?

Oddly enough, this is an interesting case with a surprising amount of precedent. In the UK, optical glasses company Specsavers trademarked the word “should’ve” and variant “shouldve” for their sole use in all marketing. This not only sent rival companies scrambling, but marketers across the country as they could then be brought to court for using “should’ve” in any advertising copy. As one paper put it, they “should’ve” seen it coming.

What makes this move so surprising is that trademarks do not usually extend to words that have become so generalized as to become part of the public lexicon. It is set up that way because doing so seriously impedes entire industries from being able to provide similar products. Now, I’m not suggesting that you should take on Google for the right to “Google” your products (a real case, if you were curious) but claiming that a term ubiquitous to a range of products and services is now yours alone brings me right back to the bully analogy and his precious cup of pudding. It CAN be done, but should it?

So what now?

As marketers, this is about to present a long list of difficult conversations and brainstorming sessions that I, quite frankly, am not looking forward to. What will the new terms be? Will it catch on with the public? Will we be able to keep our web traffic steady? How do we explain this to our members? It’s like running a marathon and then being told you need to figure out how to do it without your feet. Not easy, but we will try.

My suggestion? If the regulator demands that credit unions are no longer allowed to use the term “banking”, then they should at least provide a list of suggested options for what credit unions can use instead.

*UPDATE - We originally stated that the regulation was newly changed, whereas a more accurate statement is that the regulation is now being fully enforced. 

Jeremy Whittingstall is CEO of CUmark, a long-time credit union advocate, and marketing consultant to credit unions across Canada.

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11 responses to “Well this is ridiculous…

  1. This seems to be a great opportunity to make fun of the big banks (and the regulator). (Perhaps pressure the regulator into softening its position.) I thought of a cheeky advert. Imagine an ad that focuses on average people as they open their bank mail. The back of the statement would be visible but all the viewer could really see is the header which would utilize a background colour indicative of a major bank and the words “FEE SCHEDULE” as the header text. They would be visibly angry and using colourful language with the swearwords bleeped out. ” Royal of Canada”. Then next person – different bank. ” Scotia ” “Toronto Dominion ” ” Canadian Imperial of Canada” and so on. The ads message to the viewer is that the word “Bank” is really equivalent to a swearword. The end of the piece would present the credit unions as the antithesis of the major banks, finished off with a snappy line like: ” ‘Banking’ describes what we do, not who we are. We are way better than that.” Last line needs work, but you get the idea. The campaign would demonstrate that isolating themselves [banks] with a convenient ‘handle’ can be as big of a bane as it is a boon.

    1. Derek, I suspect you’ll get a kick out of what we have in store for early next week 😉

  2. I commend you for being the first to speak out in a way that expresses the frustration of most. Our one drawback, which is normally an asset, is that we are too polite and compliant. We need to stand up to the bullies and give them the bloody nose they deserve.

  3. Can we have banks not allowed to use the words “union” or “credit” ? At the very least they absolutely don’t get to use “co-operative” or call their customers “members”. (That last one has irked me for ages).

    I understand having payday loan shops and such identify their work as ‘banking’ is problematic, but this is ludicrous. Credit unions are established financial services entities and what they do is banking. In an era where plain language is called for, this is throwing us back to the time when advertisers couldn’t say “contraception” or “birth control” and so invented “feminine hygiene”

  4. I agree. Banking is a verb so maybe all the members can’t use the term as they are owners if a credit union. I think we need to mass mail our federal MLAs and cc Trudeau Ridiculous – what word will they ban next. Maybe if the OSFI boards were not so self serving – but what can you expect from an organization where only. Bankers sit on boards Where is / are the public members?

    On another note the OSFI newsletter is called the OSFI Pillar. Of note they use the term Pillar 3 in their strategic document. I thought as the basic philosophy of Credit Unions connects to the 3 Pillars – maybe OSFI shouldn’t be allowed to used that term?? Lol what next.

  5. While I agree that this decision by OSFI is ridiculous, it is an incredible opportunity to set ourselves apart from banks; to create a brand and new terminology that attracts a younger demographic. The tone of this article is so deflating — as a marketer you should be excited about the discussions that you now have the opportunity to engage in. I don’t understand why you’ve framed them with an air of defeat?

    Let’s get out into our communities and ask the public their opinions. Let’s take this opportunity to come up with something fresh that sets us apart from our competition. In this age new words and terminology are very commonplace; if done well, it won’t be a difficult sell.

    1. Hi, Rona. Thanks for your comment! Apologies that you found the article deflating. That wasn’t my intention. You are absolutely correct that while the change presents a long list of challenges for the credit union space it also presents a number of opportunities to create new definitions of what “banking” is. Maybe we have been relying on old terminology for too long. Maybe this is just what we need to create real market differentiation. The challenges are real, and I won’t downplay the impact this will have to a primary marketing channel, but – as you said – it offers a new reason to engage our communities. A perfect chance to engage them on a deeper level around what they have come to know as “banking” but could easily be known as something more. Your comment is well received, and is inspiring lots of ideas for a great follow up article. Have an amazing day!

  6. Interesting. After all the recent stories by the CBC about BANKS ripping off their customers; selling them products that they don’t need, don’t want, didn’t ask for and that weren’t to their benefit, or quite likely, to their detriment and abusing their staff in the process, all we get is a three day blah, blah, blah session by some parliamentary committee and some nearly meaningless fines in the $500K range for the offenders. Causes them little grief when they make $ billions every quarter. In effect, they walk away with no consequences for their bad behavior. Next thing you know, the federal banking regulator comes up with some patently ridiculous interpretation of the law that seems almost tailor-made to limit competition against the banks.

    Am I the only one that sees some form of collusion here between the banks and the federal government?

    There’s been a lot of talk recently about campaign financing reform at the provincial level here in B.C. One of the things that likely led to the recent downfall of the B.C. Liberal party and Premier Christy Clarke was that they were just a little too openly corrupt. Maybe it’s time we had a closer look at this issue at the federal level as well.

    1. The Bank Act literally states its purpose is to create a “legislative framework that enables banks to compete effectively and be resilient in a rapidly evolving marketplace”. This Act is unkind to provincially regulated financial institutions and does not really support or represent anything other than the big five.

      According to the OSFI, the reasoning behind this is that credit unions are confusing consumers. Well, as far as I’m concerned that argument goes right out the window because Federal Credit Unions are classified as ‘banks’, and are still allowed to use the terms ‘bank’, ‘banker’, ‘banking’. I have wondered if it is a ploy by the government to encourage credit unions to go federal…Provincial legislation will have to change as the Credit Union Act in BC actually uses terms like ‘banker’ to define those people who work for a financial cooperative.

      There’s a bigger issue than just finding new terms to stay competitive and it’s the millions of dollars that are going to be spent, rewriting websites, changing signage, replacing any marketing collateral, money that could be better spent in our communities. It is so unnecessary and the only way to solve this problem is to lobby so that this regulation is not enforced.

      On a side note, I’m curious what they will call ‘bankruptcy’ from now on.

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