Our Perspective

A Q&A with Affinity Plus credit union’s VP of Marketing, Joel Swanson

June 2023 — Brian Wachtler

At a Glance

  • Joel Swanson, APR, MACT leads Marketing for Affinity Plus, where he makes an impact by collaborating with leadership to craft a consistent voice for the credit union that is in line with their mission.
  • Making sure that their audience knows that Affinity Plus is member-owned, and always puts people above profits is crucial to the story that Joel wants to tell.
  • With smaller budgets than larger banks, credit unions have to be more savvy and aware of budgets, but Joel sees a huge opportunity for growth because credit unions are more dedicated to actually helping people.

Joel Swanson, a Haberman client and friend, leads marketing for Affinity Plus Credit Union. Joel and Brian Wachlter, president and partner at Haberman, got together to talk about Joel’s career journey, his passions and the marketing opportunities he sees for credit unions to better differentiate themselves in the financial services world to attract and retain the next generation member.


What inspires you about being in marketing/communications?

I was initially attracted to communications and marketing because it’s really an underrated opportunity to do good in the world. I believe, within most organizations, the communications function serves as the voice and conscience of the organization. In this role, I know I can make an impact and help make a difference by shaping a more purposeful organizational narrative.

Also, it’s challenging in a good way. It’s an ever-changing puzzle that takes an incredible amount of critical thinking to solve. Human behavior and the culture that surrounds us is always evolving and changing, and creating storylines that help meet organizational objectives while fitting within the greater cultural context is a wonderful challenge.

And, you get to solve the puzzle with other company leaders because they care deeply about the voice of the organization. There are very few career paths with access to senior executives early in your career. Where else do you get to coach and influence c-suite executives?


What drew you to leading marketing for a Credit Union?

Affinity Plus Credit Union was actually a client of mine when I was on the agency side. But my respect and admiration for credit unions goes back a long way. Early in my career I was a member of a credit union when I worked for the (teachers union). I distinctly remember getting a call one day from someone at the credit union letting me know I was $1.97 overdrawn, and that if I could come in and rectify it, they wouldn’t charge me with an overdraft fee. Money was scarce back then, and the fact that they were willing to call me for less than two dollars to help me save the cost of a penalty was so caring and personal.

Almost 20 years later, there was an opportunity to go to work for my client, Affinity. They are the only credit union of their size that is low income designated, meaning they exist to serve their members, instead of just making money.


“There is still a lack of understanding of the differences between credit unions and banks. The fact that we are not for profit and member owned is not well known. 20-25% of our members still do business 
with big banks because they assume we can’t do everything they need.”


I really got to know Affinity Plus in 2013 with a new leadership team at a bit of a moment of crisis — they needed my help with crisis communications. I was impressed by how passionate the new CEO, Dave Larson, was about creating something great — and the leadership team he was building. As I’ve watched him grow in his role over the years and the way he continually builds a culture of putting people first, my passion for what we do at Affinity has only grown. I was thrilled in 2018 when Dave and CFO/EVP Brian Volkmann asked me to help build a high-performing Marketing function. It’s always been about the people we serve. It’s infectious to be around mission-driven people living it every day.


What are the biggest challenges Credit Unions face from a marketing/communications perspective?

There is still a lack of understanding of the differences between credit unions and banks. The fact that we are not for profit and member owned is not well known. 20-25% of our members still do business with big banks because they assume we can’t do everything they need. There is still a lot of education in the category that needs to happen. There are still misconceptions of what credit unions can and cannot do.

No doubt the big banks can outspend us when it comes to marketing. Which means we just need to out hustle and outthink them. Our biggest opportunity is to lean further into what credit unions do best – member service. We have an opportunity to build much more meaningful relationships with our members.


What’s been the most effective for Affinity Plus within marketing? What are you most proud of?

It took some time, but building a marketing communications function that is cohesive across people, departments and our branches. It’s a process. We started with a hard look at what we wanted to accomplish. Where we really wanted to shine as an organization.

More functionally, we took a close look at what and where we were doing well attracting and retaining members and built upon those efforts. We found look-alike audiences. For example, we saw we were doing well with millennials, so we revamped our mobile app and started doing more on college campuses.

We also did a significant brand refresh. We started using better photography and more bright, vibrant colors. We now have brand messaging and a visual identity that stands out in the marketplace, including the “Life Math” campaign we created with Haberman. We didn’t want to look and sound like everyone else. Haberman helped us create a unique storytelling platform that is working incredibly well for us. We created something that truly stands out and builds upon our brand refresh.

Finally, I think we’ve improved communications with the executive team and other internal audiences. They understand the value our team brings to the table and feel ownership in our efforts.


How can credit unions make their marketing dollars go further? What do you recommend?

The most important thing is to know where the dollars are going. You have to be clear on what you’re controlling for budget. When I started, each branch had its own budget and no one was tracking or overseeing all the disparate efforts. 

We worked closely with finance and branch leaders to formalize budgets. We put systems in place, based on their size, to ensure they each had their own discretionary budgets so they don’t have to come to us for everything, but that all efforts were rolling up to a greater, more holistic goal.

The advantage of having a full-service agency like Haberman is that we don’t have the full set of resources internally to do something well in every market. Haberman has helped us not only set and measure against higher-level objectives for our marketing efforts, but put together and execute strategies that deliver value in every market.


Looking ahead, what is the biggest opportunity for credit unions?

At the end of the day, credit unions are more focused on actually helping people than the big banks. All the research shows people are stressed over finances. They don’t like to talk about it. They need someone to help them navigate things. Credit unions need to lean into financial literacy and education. We need to continue to serve the underserved… those who have been left behind. 

There was a man going through a divorce who came into one of our Affinity Plus branches recently. One of our member advisors sat with him for four hours to help him think through his future finances – well beyond Affinity’s product and service offering.

How do you represent that experience in your marketing? That extra effort, that excitement to serve? The meaningful purpose of truly helping people. That’s the opportunity.


President & Partner

Brian isn’t just Haberman’s president; he’s one of the agency’s original storytellers. During his 20+ year tenure, Brian has guided Haberman’s evolution from a small shop into a full-service agency. An expert at marrying mission, message and media, he has shaped some of the most memorable campaigns to come out of our agency in the last two decades.

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