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Trailhead: Banking for the Non-Conformist


what do you get when you combine spunk, independence, and tattoos?

The answer is a financial brand that bucks conformity to capture a unique Portland vibe.

This is a story about Trailhead—a small Oregon credit union that boldly set out on a mission to create an unconventional and authentic brand style.

The story began in 2012, when Northwest Resource Federal Credit Union decided to change their name and fully transform their brand. “In a competitive market owned largely by major national and regional banks, plus big credit unions, it’s hard to stand apart. Being one of nine credit unions in Oregon with ‘Northwest’ in its name wasn't helping. Gut instinct told us our name and brand needed to be redefined—so we decided to change it,” said Jim McCarthy, President/CEO at Trailhead Credit Union.

“Like other financial industry CEO’s, I spent a lot of time thinking about how my credit union could succeed, and how we could gain attention and build awareness,” added McCarthy. "After seven years of negative membership growth, I knew we needed to make a bold move in order to grow and thrive."

“We didn’t know where the naming and branding process would take us, but we were ready to make our mark, not settling for a ‘try-to-be-everything-to-everyone-me-too’ brand,” said Kim Faucher, Trailhead’s Vice President of Marketing. “We had been through brand work before, but had not captured the spirit of our credit union. We were given a shot at doing it right when the board of directors approved the name change."

"This time we hired Strum,” Faucher said. “Strum led the board and management team through a six-month strategic and creative process, conducting workshops, employee surveys, focus groups, and secondary research to articulate our brand and explore name equity. Along the way, they discovered new opportunities where our brand could flourish.”

"The team wanted to build a brand that would excite employees—a brand that would resonate as authentic and identifiable, representing something the entire staff could stand behind,” said Karen McGaughey, Strum’s VP of Client Services.

Trailhead discovered during the brand development process that their corporate personality was their secret sauce. Strum’s Creative Director, Josh Streufert, notes, “Their small size and bold individuality was their secret weapon. We leveraged that as the foundation to build a breakthrough brand.”

“Our brand development work and research helped reveal a narrow target audience to drive future growth—young, Portland 'Urbanites,' whose financial needs are as unique as they are. Our anti-corporate culture and deep local roots make us the perfect banking alternative for the independent spirit of the Portland metro community,” said Faucher.

“Portland metro has a distinctive vibe—where tattoos, piercings and personal expression are asserted as freely and openly in the tallest high-rise as they are at the local coffee stand,” added McGaughey. “This is where Trailhead’s future members dwell, work, and play, and we needed to connect them to the credit union by tapping into the organization's unique culture. We knew we wouldn't reach them with a safe, conservative, and ultimately boring financial brand.” 

The Trailhead design style is minimal and unpolished. Color comes through in the photography - and in the logo, which changes to fit the whim of its environment. The logo, like the brand, is non-conformist.

The Trailhead design style is minimal and unpolished. Color comes through in the photography - and in the logo, which changes to fit the whim of its environment. The logo, like the brand, is non-conformist.

“The brand is intentionally gritty—flawed and raw, breaking rules of conformity—from the corporate logo with multiple color applications to a brand experience more familiar at a local pub than a financial institution to free tattoos. This is only a sampling of the unique Trailhead brand and experience,” said Streufert. 

Today, the new brand is flourishing. Following seven years of negative membership growth, Trailhead showed nearly a 2% net membership growth in three months following the name and brand rollout. Annualized, the credit union may reach upwards of 8% membership growth. Celebrating individuality appears to be a win-win value proposition.