Sunny Feedback Could Help ING Direct Weather Crisis

Agency Finds Correlation Between Brand Advocates, Business Performance

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NEW YORK ( -- If you want to pick a winner in the banking industry during its time of crisis, you might want to bet on the one with the most brand love.

That's because while the most important factor that influences how a bank will fare in this climate is its balance sheet, according to Atlanta-based agency 22Squared, there appears to be a distinct correlation between the degree of brand advocacy a bank has and its business performance.

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And when it comes to having brand advocates, ING Direct -- which has largely shunned retail banking presences in favor of a streamlined internet operation -- outscores in the industry average by a wide margin, according a study released by the agency last month. The study, which measured "true advocacy," a factor of a brand's advocates minus its critics, was fielded in March, well into the economic downturn but before the latest banking crisis really kicked in.

But it could be more important now than ever. According to Google, search volume around personal banking is as high as it's been since 2004, as far back as its Insights for Search tool goes.

Those with really good advocates manage to weather crises much better, said David Rabjohns, president of MotiveQuest, another firm that tracks brand advocacy. He cited the example of BP, whose stock spent less time in the doldrums after the Prudhoe Bay crisis than competitors had during their own crises, thanks to the petroleum company's growing brand advocates.

Tougher climate
It will be interesting to see what happens to ING Direct now that interest rates are changing and creating, perhaps, less differentiation between its savings products and those of other banks. "You tend to get advocates if you have a good product and continue to improve that product," he said. "And then the marketing just becomes fuel on top of that."

ING Direct has won many fans in an industry not known for a lot of consumer love because it has a "super-focused business model while other banks are cloudy," said Brandon Murphy, director-brand planning at 22Squared.

John Owens, ING Direct's head of marketing, attributes that to a dogged commitment to the company's core values and messaging, which tells consumers the bank will save them time and money.

The lack of an on-the-street banking presence lets the company save on overhead. Mr. Owens said that savings is funneled to customers in the form of higher interest rates and real, live people answering the phone. "Companies that can stick to principles, messaging will be successful in the long run," he said. "Consumers see through changes and say, 'There's something going on here. Why are they changing messaging?'"

That's why ING Direct hasn't changed its central message in response to the crisis. E-mail communication with customers emphasizes safety and explains things such as FDIC rules. And the company published a "Declaration of Financial Independence" titled "We, the Savers," which ran last week in USA Today and is on the company's home page. (No. 9: "We will remember what matters. We are not the things we own. If we have to spend and spend on bigger, more impressive things to keep up with our friends, then they are not our friends at all.")

"Cultivating these brand disciples, brand evangelists, whatever you want to call them, before a time of crisis, that's what you need to be doing," said Jeffry Pilcher, editor of The Financial Brand. "Not 'Oh, my gosh, the crisis is here, I need to find some.'"
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