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Craig Birchfield - Combining Brand Strategy & Anthropological Skill Sets

As we navigate through the new normal of life and the CU industry we at CUltivate have really taken the time to appreciate and value what others are putting out there in the industry and Craig Birchfield immediately caught our eye. While considered a credit union newbie, Craig has exactly what the industry needs in order to grow. From his fresh approach on creative thinking to his diverse backgrounds and perspectives showcasing through when he posts content. Craig is relatable, intelligent, and here to help credit unions be culturally competent and competitive.



You've have an interesting career journey, how did you discover credit unions and the movement? 


"There's no f*ing way I would ever work in a credit union." 

  • Me, circa 2016

If my 20's have taught me anything, it's how many tequila shots are too many, and never say never. In some ways, my journey to credit unions makes perfect sense. I started my career working creative jobs in large evangelical churches. I saw firsthand how powerful cultural competence could be. When you've got an idea as nuanced as faith, understanding your cultural context is key to communicating effectively. 


When I left professional faith behind, I felt as if I left behind a sense of direction. So naturally, I transitioned to advertising (all in good fun - love my ad peeps). Most of the clients at the agency I started with were credit unions. When I first started, I did not see credit unions as anything other than a paycheck. I longed for clients who would do brave things. My perception of the movement began to change the closer I worked with our clients. Specifically, the CAP COM FCU team opened my eyes to the credit union difference (see what I did there?). CAP COM's commitment to community, members, and employees was - and is - inspiring. 


Fast forward to early 2020. I had a gig as a creative director at an agency with a few clients who did not align with my values. At that point, I decided I would never again put myself in a position to work for a brand or industry that I did not align with. I started looking for jobs at a credit unions. I was lucky to land a role with an amazing organization, Publix Employees FCU, and have slept a little easier ever since. 



Here's the thing. Our movement has something other industries are scrambling to manufacture - purpose. We cannot downplay the fact that many talented individuals are freaking out every Sunday night at the prospect of going back to work for a job that seeks only to fatten the pockets of shareholders. Millennial and Gen-Z talent, in particular, are desperate to work for an organization with a moral backbone. We've got to double down on our purpose. 


What has been your ah ha moment in your first 6 months of working in the CU industry? 


I had the privilege to crash AACUC's Commitment to Change in August 2020. I'm still processing the wisdom from our industries' best and brightest. After six months of think pieces about the need for "digital transformation" in "the age of COVID," it was refreshing to hear more about how we, as a movement, can respond and deliver innovative solutions to the problems created by systemic racism. I'll break down the "Ah Ha" into two parts:  


First, Competing on features is table stakes. We've got something banks, and Fintechs can't copy. If you've been in the movement, it's understandable that it might seem mundane, but our people over profit, cooperative structure is revolutionary and relevant. It's not just about CSR - any organization can participate in that. It's about how we are structured. Very few industries and organizations can match us on that level. The trick is understanding how to take this culturally relevant and timely idea and communicate it in a culturally competent way. 



Second, we have so much work to do internally. We can't own that "people helping people" position to its fullest until we take action to ensure our internal cultures are anti-racist and leading the way in promoting traditionally marginalized people to lead and shape the system. DEI falls short if we compartmentalize it as an "HR" thing. It has to transform the way we conduct and do business. 


I walked away from that experience believing wholeheartedly in the vision Renee Sattiewhite, President/CEO of AACUC, put forward: Credit unions are uniquely poised to change American hearts and minds about racism.



We also attended the AACUC Commitment to Change and it was remarkable how passionate everyone was to make a difference. Immediately when I discovered you I was impressed with your branding and how you put yourself out there. Can you talk about your personal brand and how others can take a similar approach?


Well, shucks! I'm blushing. Seriously, I appreciate the compliment. Something I'm embracing more and more is committing to deep thinking and abstaining from having a hot take on everything. That's an intentional move. I have limited time with work, school, and life right now, so I've been very selective in what I post. Here's how I filter decisions:


  • It's a topic I've done thorough research on and have a new perspective to add to the conversation. 

  • It's using my privilege to amplify marginalized voices and to back anti-racist ideas. I have a long way to go in this area. 

  • It makes me happy. Listen, life is short. Post stuff that makes you happy. I've been trying to incorporate more personal design work into my content, partly because it's fulfilling. That's not to say I'm not using it to my advantage. I push myself to design and write in a style that feels distinctive next to other credit union content. 


If I'm wearing my digital strategy hat, there are a lot of things I should be doing, like utilizing video, posting with higher frequency, etc. I have to remind myself that it's okay to rest, and it's okay not to be running at 100% all the time. 


Well said, love the decision making process. What is the role of a digital & social strategist? What benefit can a credit union get by adding such position and how has COVID-19 affected your day to day or overall career. 


We're a tight-knit team at PEFCU, and the digital & social strategist role includes a little bit of everything! Seriously, on Monday, I might be working on a plan for marketing automation and writing a brief for an upcoming campaign, and on Friday, I'm neck-deep in content creation. 


I think the term "digital & social strategist" is becoming redundant in a marketing context. There is little distinction between digital marketing and marketing anymore. A competent strategist is T-shaped, meaning they can grasp many different areas and go deep in a particular area relevant to the team's needs.


The benefit of hiring a strategist is in their ability to build a plan for exponential results by connecting the entire team's expertise, cultural insights, and knowledge of marketing channels. Let me put that into context. PEFCU was recently running a campaign for a popular loan product. The results were initially decent, and predictably the more money we spent on media, the more the results incrementally climbed. I noticed an opportunity to switch up the creative to be more specific to our field of membership. I probed our team for culturally relevant ideas, and we crafted the new ads. The update cut our cost per click in half, and more importantly, contributed to 5x loan growth over the previous year. To be clear, this was a team win. As a strategist, my role is not to know and do it all. It's to know what questions to ask, be relentlessly curious, and connect the dots. 


As far as COVID goes, I think the most significant change is the one most of us aren't talking about yet. How is this pandemic changing the long term aspirations and lifestyle of our members? For example, a hallmark of dominant US culture is rugged individualism. That doesn't work during a pandemic. We are being challenged to reconsider the effects of individual actions on our communities on a massive level. Will this moment cause us to revisit some of those individualist values, and if so, how will that affect our financial decisions? 



You've had a very diverse educational journey. Talk about that and how it relates to your career today.


Ha! It's been quite the ride. I started in bible college, moved on to art school, and am now finishing an undergrad in anthropology. I cannot look you straight in the eye and tell you there was any master plan. What I can say is that I'm making meaning of this seemingly nonsensical academic journey. When I look back, my academic and professional interests have always centered on understanding people and culture, which is immensely helpful in a strategy role (or any role, really). For now, I'm focused on finishing an undergraduate and graduate in anthropology. I want to combine brand strategy & anthropological skill sets to help credit unions be culturally competent and competitive. 


CUltivate is people helping people with our mission to spread the word, connect the people, and give an outlet to share your stories. Know someone in the industry we should interview? Drop us a line at CultivateYP@gmail.com

#CUltivateTheMovement


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