Gen Z As a Growth Strategy

By Sheryl S. Jackson

Attracting Younger Members Requires Innovation and Listening

Every credit union marketer knows that the best way to sustain growth and financial viability of the organization is to attract new members who will stay loyal to the credit union throughout their life. This strategy has worked well, but as members age, the challenge is to attract younger generations that are looking for different types of products than existing members.

Enhanced technology, new products, educational offerings and convenient services are all important to younger members but reaching the Gen Z market is not easy due to their age, stage of life and influence, or lack of influence, from parents.

Members of Generation Z—or Zoomers—were born between the mid- to late-90s and 2010. They are the first generation to be considered “digital natives” because they have had access to the internet and portable digital technology since birth. Generally, they are concerned about academic success and job prospects, and they are willing to delay gratification more than previous generations.1 They do, however expect to use technology in all areas of their lives.

Reaching Gen Z members is part of business-as-usual for credit unions with ties to universities. While these institutions also serve faculty, staff and alumni of the schools, a key part of their marketing efforts are directed at students aged 17 to 25.

The age breakdown, by generation, for members of the MSU Federal Credit Union is:

  • 26% Gen Z
  • 29% Gen Y (millennials)
  • 21% Gen X
  • 20% Baby Boomers
  • 4% Silent Generation

The 341,691-member credit union includes students, faculty, staff and alumni from Michigan State University, Oakland University and select employer groups throughout the state of Michigan. “We see different behavior in each generation of members,” said Deidre J. Davis, MSUFCU chief marketing officer. “For our overall membership, 36% use mobile deposit but for those who joined as students, the mobile deposit usage is 53%.”

The convenience of not having to visit a branch to transact business is just one way MSUFCU appeals to the younger generation. Research shows that while Gen Z has the lowest financial literacy of each of the five generations, 52% of Gen Z respondents to one study say that they are focused on improving their knowledge.2

“We offer Financial 4.0®, a free financial education program to all members but the topics are geared toward younger members who are still in school or about to begin their careers,” said Davis. The program is offered online via MSUFCU’s website as well as the Financial 4.0 for MSUFCU mobile app as a series of videos, podcasts, infographics and blogs and in-person or virtual seminars. “There are five neighborhoods, or residential areas, on the MSU campus, and our financial education team hosts seminars in all of them, offering students information on topics relevant to them,” she said. These topics address all stages of the college student’s journey from initial budgeting tips, ways to establish credit and the value of internships for students in their first years to housing considerations, investment basics and networking advice for students in their later years. “To help encourage attendance, we sometimes have prize drawings for attendees or give all attendees a free gift,” she adds.

“Focusing on loyalty is important. It allows us to create long-term members by developing a trusting relationship with students early in their college experience,” said Donna Dickerson, vice president of brand and marketing for the University of Michigan Credit Union (UMCU), a 115,000-member credit union serving University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College and nearby communities. The credit union demonstrates its commitment to serving students with relevant product packages crafted specifically for students that include free checking accounts with university-branded debit cards.

“Students also want technology that is easy to use,” said Tiffany Ford, president and CEO of UMCU. Based on feedback from students, UMCU converted its mobile and online services to a new platform that is more intuitive, robust and simpler to use.

Practical Giveaways are Important

“We are where the students are, meeting them before school begins at welcome and orientation events, at sports events and on the social media platforms they use,” said Ford. Credit union staff also show up at coffee shops and smoothie stores. Pop-up events promoted on UMCU’s social media invite students to specific locations where they find credit union staff with educational information and giveaways. “They can use QR codes from our social media for t-shirts and other items, in fact, we hosted a free smoothie day at one location that is popular with students.”

Ford pointed out that it’s important to be flexible with offerings—especially giveaways—based on student feedback or type of event. For example, with ice hockey, gloves are a fan favorite in the ice arena but on a sunny football Saturday, sunglasses are welcomed, she said. “Our university-branded sweatshirt is given with each new account, and the students love them. We see students wearing them to classes, sporting events and around town.”

At Duke University Federal Credit Union (DUFCU), giveaways are chosen for practicality, said Jennifer Sider, MBA, director of marketing. “We’ve found that college-student-aged members are not interested in decorative items, but want practical items,” she said. “Our most popular giveaways are pens, water bottles, adhesive hooks to use in dorm rooms and key chains with rubber basketballs—a very popular Duke item.”

DUFCU is not as large as other credit unions near or affiliated with universities. The 16,000-member institution has one branch, which is adjacent to but not on campus property, and 35 team members. The credit union serves students, staff and faculty, and retirees at the university and the affiliated health system as well as their family members.

“We only began offering products and services to undergraduate students five years ago, so we are still building those relationships,” said Sider. Because the credit union is only one of several larger, more traditional financial institutions that exhibit at new student orientation, an ambassador program was used to differentiate the credit union from others this year. “We hired four undergraduates to work at the events to distribute information and covered the expenses of campus influencers who posted financial tips from the credit union for two weeks,” she said. “The results were positive, but we realize that to keep the momentum, it would be necessary to extend the program throughout the year.” Her future plans include evaluating the creation of a student advisory board to provide feedback, suggestions and insight into the best ways to engage students.

Offer Student-specific Programs

Loans that are specific to the student experience are also attractive to the younger audience. Study abroad loans as well as graduate student loans to bridge the gap between scholarships, work-study or part-time income are popular. MSUFCU also provides a loan for students volunteering with Spartans without Borders and awards $1,000 through the MSUFCU Internship Opportunity Award to help cover out-of-pocket expenses when students are working at unpaid internships.

“Gen Z members want to do business with socially responsible organizations,” said Davis. “Our employees and our organization support community and student-based organizations, and we make sure we are continually sharing that story via social media in our various communications.”

DUFCU also responds to their members’ desire to be part of something bigger and give back to the community with its main charitable partner, Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center, said Sider. Efforts to partner with organizations include the graduate student association, for whom grad-student-specific loans were created and promoted, recognition of student groups at sporting events and use of graduate students for business projects and inclusion at board meetings.

Sider’s team has also found a much-needed way to help a segment of the Gen Z audience. “International students can build U.S. credit with a share secured credit account,” she explained. Without a Tax ID they may not be eligible for a loan but can use this card to establish a credit history that will be helpful in the future.

While recruiting new members is important and engaging them while they are at school can be accomplished with technology, educational offerings, social media and attendance at events, the real challenge is retention.

With younger members, especially those who may leave your immediate area once they graduate, move away for a job or just decide they want to live somewhere else, it’s important to begin retention efforts early in the relationship—even during the recruitment phase.

“Be agile and willing to invest in technology that can be personalized and be used to continue engagement throughout their lives,” said Davis. “We promote and encourage the use of our mobile app, online banking and the CO-OP ATM network, and we explain that we can go wherever they go.” 


  1. Protzko, J. Kids These Days! Increasing delay of gratification ability over the past 50 years in children. Intelligence. 2020. 80 (101451). doi:10.1016/j.intell.2020.101451. S2CID 218789047.
  2. Yakoboski PJ, Lusardi A, Hasler A. Financial literacy and well-being in a five generation America: The 2021 TIAA Institute-GFLEC Personal Finance Index.