NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This holiday season, don't spend; save.
It's surely not the message most marketers want consumers to hear, especially in a recession. But if you've opened a newspaper filled with holiday-deal ads, passed a billboard or searched for year-end gifts, you might have come across the mantra ING Direct has been touting since Black Friday, urging people to close their pocketbooks and return to a state of fiscal responsibility.
The online-banking company, a subsidiary of Netherlands-based ING Group, launched its "We the savers" campaign in October but relaunched its site for the holidays with a host of social-media tools, including message boards, polls and an iGoogle gadget.
In one example, e-commerce shoppers searching for holiday gifts on Cyber Monday may have noticed an unusual offer showing up in the paid part of the Google results: "Don't spend, save with ING Direct. Help lead America back to savings." The message stands out amid a bombardment of other messages touting superior discounts, door-buster deals and perfect holiday gifts -- all promises that retailers hope will entice consumers to dig deep into their credit accounts.
"If we can talk to [consumers] in a very down-to-earth, simple way without selling them anything ... what better place to do that than where people are shopping?" said ING Direct Chief Marketing Officer John Owens.
The campaign is supported by an online and a nontraditional offline buy, including lots of outdoor ads -- taxi toppers, elevator ads and wild postings -- in New York City, which is not only a core ING Direct market but also, Mr. Owens said, "the capital of consumerism." GWP Brand Engineering, Toronto, was involved in the creative design of the campaign and the site redesign; Traffic Buyer, New York, handled online planning and buying; and PosterScope, New York, did the out-of-home buys. (He said he hasn't heard from his marketing cohorts at other companies asking what he is doing urging against spending.) Mr. Owens calls his message a balanced one -- and one of responsibility that consumers want to hear from a bank right now.
"We're not saying don't spend anything; we're saying be wise and be smart about it," he said. "The pendulum swung and we went way too far down the path of spending what we didn't have."
He said there's such a thing as good debt -- a mortgage, for example, because it puts a roof over your head, and most people don't have the cash to go out and buy a house.
"But your house is not an ATM; it's a savings account," he said. "As a bank, we think we can make money by selling mortgages and not selling credit cards with egregious interest rates. That's the stuff we call the opium of consumers. It's really difficult to get off."
It seems a bit unrealistic to believe that people with an express interest in spending money on gifts would convert into savers, but the more interesting question about this campaign is not so much the economy's effect on spending but its effect on saving, said John A. Quelch, Harvard Business School professor and author of "Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy."
Cynicism for saving
While there is a group of people who will be predisposed to saving money this year -- and saving money more conservatively in government-insured accounts and CDs, such as the ones ING Direct offers -- there may also be people who have lost money and are more cynical about saving. Or, if you're working less but want to sustain the same lifestyle and consumption patterns, you might be able to allocate a higher proportion of what you do have to spending and a lesser proportion to savings than in the past.
"[ING Direct] doesn't want to see a deterioration in the percentage of a consumer's money that's put into savings, and there are obvious reasons to prop up the savings habit, particularly since interest rates have plummeted," Mr. Quelch said. "The message of responsibility is relevant, it's just not altruistic."
So the question might be: How much is ING spending?
Mr. Owens didn't address whether his budget is up or down from past years, but according to TNS Media Intelligence, ING Direct's ad spending in the first three quarters of 2008 rose 21% from the first three quarters of 2007, to $46 million. In the fourth quarter of 2007, it spent $16 million, and in the fourth quarter of 2006 it spent $14 million on measured media.
It's too early to tell what kind of effect the campaign has had. About 11,500 people have signed the "We the savers" declaration online in less than three weeks. The site's traffic has spiked, according to Hitwise, but it's hard to judge absolute traffic data since the most recent data available through Quantcast was for November, when the site had been live for only three days.