WELL THIS IS RIDICULOUS...
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.