ING Focuses On Internet Branding

by , Jun 21, 2002, 12:00 AM
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Financial services company ING, headquartered in Amsterdam, isn’t exactly a household name here in the U.S. But with 15 million customers, approximately $150 billion in assets under management, and $23.4 billion in sales last year, company officials hope to change all that with an online strategy that will focus on site consolidation and brand awareness.

ING expanded its presence here in the U.S. in the late 1990s, mainly through autonomous growth and the acquisition of American enterprises such as insurer Equitable of Iowa Companies in 1997 and the ReliaStar, Aetna Financial Services, and Aetna International insurance companies in 2000. ING offers banking, insurance, and asset management to private, corporate, and institutional clients in 65 countries. The company only recently reached critical mass here in the U.S. through its acquisitions of various annuity providers and life insurance and mutual fund companies — all with different names and labels, from ReliaStar and Aetna Financial Services to Security Life of Denver and Pilgrim Funds.

Last year, ING made substantial progress in transforming its host of label-companies into one powerful ING brand, with the objective of presenting to the world a company with one face, one attitude, and one look and feel. The company’s ultimate goal is to make sure the “ING experience” is properly branded. The company invested in online advertising during the third and fourth quarters of last year as a test of the interactive market as a branding tool. Based on the results of those tests, ING officials have decided to continue its online advertising spend well into 2003.

“There has never been an ING brand here in the U.S.,” says Tom Daly, the company’s vice president of Web strategy. “Our presence has come about through a series of acquisitions under the ING name. We are just now, for the first time, bringing that name forward to the market.”

ING had not invested heavily or consistently in online advertising in the past. There had been some online advertising at the label-company level and in other countries, but the company had no “historical” data from which to make a decision.

Yet based on results from its beta tests last year, the company decided this past February to seamlessly integrate offline and online into one branding campaign that included online, TV, and radio, but no print advertising. “We had no preconceived ideas about online as a branding tool,” says Daly. “We had enjoyed some online success around the globe, and we knew some of those strategies would work here in the U.S. But because the vast majority of our business is done through our intermediaries, we didn’t want to do anything to hurt their businesses. So really it’s all about the brand, making sure people are aware of ING. For us, online was just another channel.” Just another channel that company officials have decided will absorb 5% to 10% of its overall marketing/ad budget this year.

“I don’t personally need to be convinced that online advertising works,” says Daly. “People look to the Internet to manage their accounts and to gather information. It’s more comfortable than walking into a sales office. We know financial services people gravitate to the Web, and it’s not unique to ING. It’s a statement about the category.

In our case, people aren’t confident with their knowledge about finances. People in this country don’t talk about their money. So the Web presents an opportunity to do the research and gain some confidence on issues related to their financial well-being. All this argues to invest ahead of the data points about consumers’ online media consumption. Given what we do, it’s a big driver.”

Last December, ING went through the internal activity of consolidating dozens of incumbent and legacy sites into an ING website in order to deliver one consistent and focused message. Now, if a customer wants to look for information on life insurance policies, he or she has only to visit one website as opposed to dozens. Traffic was built by redirecting users from incumbent or legacy sites and via search engine strategies.

Before embarking on its repositioning strategy online, ING looked at its goals and objectives and researched competitive activity online. It conducted various pre- and post-awareness tests, then invested in the full complement of online advertising and marketing strategies, including banners and buttons, custom-content areas, email campaigns, search engine optimization, and rich media — all with high levels of frequency to deliver because “it seemed to be the right mix, based on our business objectives,” says Daly.

“We first needed to build one-to-one relationships with the people who want to become more familiar with our company,” says Daly. “We’re just getting started, and we’re not committing to anything for more than six months. In the end, things that work we’ll continue to support.”

The company played off its TV advertisements featuring a man and his dog trying to understand the ING brand. Although the creative elements weren’t exactly the same, by the end of the day both TV and online were started from the “same strategic document,” says Daly. Online units were placed on such websites as NewYorkTimes.com, WallStreetJournal.com, and CBSMarketwatch.com — the sites that “deliver” against the company’s audience.

In the end, ING was afforded the unique opportunity to create an online branding strategy that from the onset was completely integrated. More to the point, all branding continues to be handled by both DDB of New York and interactive agency Euro RSCG Circle. Both teams define shared objectives, review buys, and share in optimization recommendations. “It helps us better manage our offline and online objectives,” says Daly.

Daly says ING considers itself “advocates” of online advertising as a tool to improve brand perception. “We really treat it as a regular part of the discussion,” he adds. “I know that some companies describe it as the red-headed stepchild, but for us it’s not about if we execute online advertising and marketing strategies, but how. Exactly what is the role online has in our advertising/marketing mix? There’s no stand-alone e-commerce group in our company. We’re all part of the same team.”

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