Get ‘em while they’re young

The late Alphonse Desjardins would probably have been shocked if you had described his efforts to educate Quebec children about the importance of saving, as a marketing program.

The late Alphonse Desjardins would probably have been shocked if you had described his efforts to educate Quebec children about the importance of saving, as a marketing program.

The public service-minded Desjardins would not have appreciated the charge that the banking co-operative he founded – today known as Le Mouvement des Caisses Desjardins – was marketing products to kids.

In fact, marketing did not even exist as an academic discipline in 1901 when Desjardins initiated the first school caisse (La Caisse scolaire) program in a Lèvis primary school, through which students learned to save by operating ‘mini’ bank account.

However, it’s clear that the initiative, while no doubt an educational success, has substantial promotional side benefits which make it arguably one of the most effective marketing programs in Canada.

Generalizations about the school caisse program are difficult to make. The Mouvement Desjardins is a decentralized organization and program details vary because they are run at the branch level.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works. Through its autonomous branches (called caisses), the Mouvement Desjardins provides schools with educational material describing the school caisse program.

Teachers use this material to instruct students about money management and then give students the ‘opportunity’ to open their own ‘mini’ bank accounts, which are administered by the local Mouvement Desjardins caisse.

These accounts have no administrative fees attached and each kid gets their own bankbook. When children leave primary school, their parents are given the option of converting the school caisse accounts into regular bank accounts.

There are few reliable statistics available related to school caisse accounts. Many stats were compiled at the branch level and never consolidated.

But here’s what we know. During 2001, the program had close to 200,000 account holders between the ages of six and 11. During the 1970s when the student population was larger, this total regularly exceeded 300,000.

The Mouvement Desjardins couldn’t provide statistics about how many students join the program each year. But a good estimate (if you divide the number of account holders by the six grades of primary school) is about 33,000 during the last few years, and about 50,000 a year during the 1970s.

If you take a mid-point, that means approximately 1.24 million students have participated in the program during the last 30 years. But the program has been around almost 100 years, and the ultimate total could be as much as double that.

The enormous marketing spin-offs become even clearer when you consider that each student has parents who are no doubt aware of their kids’ accounts.

That’s because withdrawals must be made at the branch. Since withdrawals must be co-signed by the parent, the kid in effect drags his parent into a Mouvement Desjardins branch every time he wants to take out money.

But (big surprise) depositing money is much easier. Program costs are kept down because public school teachers often help to collect the deposits. Once or twice a month teachers distribute small envelopes in which the kids put their money. Teachers also distribute educational material with the Mouvement Desjardins logo on it.

Many companies dream of recruiting clients when they are young, especially in a field like banking, in which products are consumed over a lifetime, and loyalty is exceptionally strong.

The problem is that kids are hard to reach. There are numerous statutory restrictions against marketing to children, such as Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act, and other legislation forbidding most companies from displaying advertising in schools.

If any other company were to recruit public school teachers to collect money from school children, there would be hell to pay. But Mouvement Desjardins is not any company.

With five million accounts, $80 billion in assets, 38,000 employees (making the co-operative the province’s largest employer), and 12,000 volunteer officers, in many ways Mouvement Desjardins is Quebec. Well, francophone Quebec anyway.

The organization estimates that only about 5% of its clients are anglophones. This may be partly because the school caisse program is almost non-existent in English public schools.

The legalities surrounding it are hazy. The program has been around so long, and is so well known among Quebec francophones, that many have never given it a second thought.

None of the half-dozen government, industry, or consumer protection officials contacted were confident enough to talk about the subject on the record. Several others did not return phone calls.

However one Mouvement Desjardins spokesperson, a lawyer, said that francophone financial institutions (which at the time meant Mouvement Desjardins) were granted the right to educate kids about savings in Quebec schools under a 1908 statute, la Loi sur l’Instruction Publique.

Mouvement Desjardins officials deny that the primary purpose of the school caisse program is to recruit clients, citing high costs, and the fact that small accounts are a drain on large financial institutions.

But when asked why students were only given the opportunity to open Mouvement Desjardins bank accounts and not others, and why the organization’s logo was prominently displayed on educational material, one official replied ‘we have to get some publicity for our efforts.’

According to a Canadian Banking Association spokesperson, the CBA also runs educational programs in Canada’s schools. But these programs are not identified with any particular bank, there are no bank logos on the material, and the programs are not used as a tool to recruit clients.

Peter Diekmeyer is the marketing columnist for the Montreal Gazette. He can be reached at