Marella's journey into the credit union industry is an extraordinary one. Born in Greece, she immigrated to the United States in the mid-80s. Her family's dream of opening restaurants became a reality thanks to a small community bank that provided a loan to her father, who had an entrepreneurial spirit. After she graduated from college, Marella ran her family's restaurants for 10 years, learning the core values of dedication and hard work. However, her entry into the credit union world came in 2007 when a close friend introduced her to her previous CEO. Despite knowing very little about credit unions, Marella quickly connected with the industry and its mission of "people helping people."
Her passion for marketing and branding eventually led her to obtain an MBA, and in 2016, she was offered the role of VP Marketing at Fairfax County FCU. Speaking about this transition, she says, "I stumbled across the credit union industry in 2007 when a close friend introduced me to my previous CEO. I knew nothing about credit unions, but quickly fell in love with the industry."
One of the defining moments in her career was the opportunity to lead the rebranding and renaming of the credit union. This experience proved immensely successful, earning the newly renamed NextMark several CUNA Diamond Awards, and Marella herself was named CUNA's Marketer of the Year in 2020. She reflects on this, saying, "I am so thankful to have been trusted with spearheading the rebranding and renaming of my credit union."
Marella's Role and Responsibilities
As the Chief Marketing Officer of NextMark Credit Union, Marella's responsibilities are extensive. She oversees all marketing and business development efforts, including creating and executing annual marketing plans, analyzing member data and behavioral propensities, enhancing the member experience, and coordinating community partnerships, volunteer efforts, and sponsorships. She also leads the business development department and financial education initiatives, firmly considering herself the brand ambassador and the strongest advocate for the credit union.
The Impact of Filene's i3 Program
Marella acknowledges the profound influence of Filene's i3 program on her marketing efforts. One of the most valuable concepts she learned was the importance of human-centered design and its connection to empathy. Marella emphasizes the significance of understanding members' needs and offering the right solutions at the right time. She states, "It's about meeting members where they are on their financial journey by offering them the right solution at the right time."
Collaborative Spirit and Innovation
Collaboration is a cornerstone of the i3 program, and Marella's experience reflects that. She thrived in the collaborative environment of her i3 project teams, expanding her knowledge across various credit union disciplines and learning about innovative solutions and strategies that could be applied in her own work.
Her year-1 team was particularly special, receiving Filene's 2023 Innovation Award for their project on WEOKIE's Impact Loans. She highlights the value of collaboration, saying, "When you bring together a bunch of forward-thinking leaders who want to drive change, collaboration is a given attribute."
Marella treasures the connections she's made with fellow i3 participants, helping her broaden her knowledge of different areas within credit union operations. The idea-sharing sessions in the program provided a safe space to explore out-of-the-box ideas and cultivate amazing innovations. She shares, "The connections I have made with fellow i3ers have been invaluable."
Prioritizing Member-Centric Services
Understanding member needs remains central to credit unions, and Marella's involvement with Filene's programs has deepened her commitment to empathy and human-centered design as driving forces behind member-focused marketing efforts. She believes that "empathy should be the driving force in everything we do as credit union leaders."
Applying Innovative Thinking
Inspired by Filene's programs, Marella applied innovative thinking to address a specific challenge. Recognizing the growth in electric vehicle loans, Marella collaborated with the lending team in helping introduce an Electric Vehicle (EV) Loan with lower rates than traditional auto loans, coupled with an additional $2,000 for charging station expenses. This innovative approach aims to make NextMark the preferred lender for EV loans in their area, highlighting the power of identifying and solving real problems. She explains, "I believe that the main driver of applying innovative thinking is being more intentional about identifying the problem."
Filene offers an array of valuable resources, and Marella encourages her peers to take full advantage of them. The research reports, produced by Filene Fellows, cover a wide variety of credit union disciplines, providing valuable insights for the entire industry. She emphasizes, "Take advantage of these cutting-edge resources."
Addressing Industry Challenges
Technological innovation and membership growth and retention are significant challenges within the credit union industry. Marella believes that credit unions must keep up with digital banking trends, and marketing departments should play a more involved role in exploring and deploying technological solutions. She also emphasizes the potential of storytelling to connect with consumers authentically and foster industry growth. She shares her vision, saying, "Our industry helps millions of people across 118 countries. Imagine if we gathered the most powerful stories and used them in our marketing?"
Standout Moments with Filene
One of Marella's standout moments in her involvement with Filene was presenting on stage at the 2022 Big Bright Minds conference. This experience helped her overcome her fear of public speaking and left her with a profound sense of empowerment. She reflects on this transformative experience, saying, "When we finished presenting, I felt a huge sense of empowerment."
Participation in Filene's programs has enhanced Marella's leadership skills, particularly in prioritization, delegation, and organization. She leads by example, showcasing her passion and involvement in the industry to inspire others within her credit union. She shares her approach to leadership, "As a leader in my organization, I am always juggling multiple projects."
Marella advises emerging marketing professionals to explore Filene i3 if they are passionate about innovation and aspire to transform traditional approaches into futuristic ones. With an open mind, she believes anything is possible. Her advice is clear, "If you are passionate about innovation and are interested in learning how to transform old-school mentalities into futuristic approaches at your credit union, I highly recommend exploring Filene i3."
Looking ahead, Marella aspires to lead a credit union that focuses on people, data, and innovation, fostering an environment where voices are heard, and ideas are turned into impactful actions. She envisions a credit union industry that leverages its collective power to make a difference on a global scale.
The financial services industry continues to evolve and with it consumer expectations and their options for where they do their banking is also rapidly changing. These trends are putting pressure on credit unions to better understand their current and potential members to meet their needs and deliver an exceptional experience. This starts with credit unions focusing and investing in their marketing platforms and their marketing teams. Emerging credit union marketing leaders like Marella, who have been nurtured and influenced by Filene's programs, play a pivotal role in shaping the future of our industry.
Leadership development and driving innovation within your credit union will lead to future growth and improved financial performance. If you are a future credit union leader or you know someone on your team that would be perfect for the i3 leadership program—apply now, deadline is December 31st, 2023!