The tale of WingspanBank's $150 million start-up advertising budget wasn't true, but it certainly was tantalizing.

It originated in mid-1999, when John McCoy, then the chief executive officer of Bank One Corp., said that the new online bank his company was setting up would add up to $150 million to annual operating expenses, and dilute earnings per share by about five cents a share in its first 12 months of operation.

From there, the reporters, industry analysts, consultants, and others who typically dig their teeth into a juicy news morsel started tossing around figures about what percentage of those start-up costs would be used to promote Wingspan.

A Wall Street Journal article from August 25, 1999, said that "outsiders" expected Bank One to "pour close to $100 million" into a "coast-to-coast ad blitz that includes pop-up ads all over the Internet." Another article, in the Bank Administration Institute's November/December 1999 issue of Banking Strategies, said that two-thirds of the $150 million would be spent on a "nationwide advertising blitz."

Once people started to see and hear the national television and radio spots for Wingspan, the huge numbers seemed easy to believe, and the oft-cited $150 million of development costs morphed in some peoples' minds into $150 million of marketing.

At first, this was probably to Bank One's benefit: Like an army that exaggerates its numbers to intimidate the enemy, the Wingspan marketing budget - even the lower estimates- seemed too huge for a competitor to replicate. Over time, as Wingspan failed to catch fire, the $150 million figure became a convenient sneering point.

Richard W. Vague, who oversaw WingspanBank for Bank One but has since left to start up his own Internet financial services firm, Juniper Financial, said during a recent visit to American Banker that the chimerical $150 million marketing figure was not a fiction perpetuated by Bank One, but something that took on a life of its own. "The real number was less than one-10th of that," he said.

Indeed, figures compiled by Competitive Media Reporting, a New York company that tracks ad spending by various companies, show that Wingspan's budget was in keeping with Mr. Vague's estimate.

Last year, though it was only in business for about half the year, Wingspan spent $17 million on advertising, with the largest chunk going toward spot television ads ($6.6 million) and lesser amounts on cable television ($4.5 million), national newspapers ($2.5 million), and magazines ($1.7 million), according to the tracking firm.

For the first eight months of this year - the most recent figures released by Competitive Media Reporting - Wingspan also spent $17 million, vastly more than any online bank, and even more than the consumer arms of large banking companies like Citigroup Inc. ($10.2 million) and Chase Manhattan Corp. ($16.5 million). First Union Corp.'s consumer services spent the most, $58.9 million, during those eight months, according to the survey.

Advertising mavens say the dollar signs are less important than the bang one gets for the buck. By that standard, it is still difficult to evaluate Wingspan, which seems to be taking a long-term view.

James Dimon, who took over the helm of Bank One from Mr. McCoy and has pledged to keep Wingspan rather than sell it, has overseen a new strategy of placing Wingspan kiosks in Bank One branches; this smacks of an acknowledgement that the "nationwide advertising blitz" may have fizzled to some degree.

Then again, if Bank One is truly looking to develop Wingspan as a stand-alone brand with staying power, the kamikaze ad campaign may have furthered the cause.

Gomez Advisors, a Lincoln, Mass., consulting firm that evaluates and rates online financial services firms, conducted public opinion research that showed some potency to the so-called blitz.

"When we asked folks, unaided, can they name an online bank or a bank that provided online services, Wingspan did show up, so they accomplished mindshare out there with their marketing campaign," said Paul Jamieson, senior analyst for banking and payment services at Gomez. At the outset, "Wingspan spent a lot of money on its television campaign, and yet at the end I think they had a bit north of 100,000 accounts, so I think the acquisition costs were fairly extreme," he said.

Netbank has taken a more conservative approach and seen better results, Mr. Jamieson said. The bank was "very shrewd in spending dollars, but instead of taking a traditional Internet approach of let's-spend-everything-for-market-share, they have taken a very disciplined approach in making sure that whatever they were spending would drive them more revenue than it was costing them," he said.

Using this strategy, and a marketing campaign that focuses on the Internet and banner ads, "they have been a very profitable Internet bank for seven quarters."

Christopher Keenan, director of marketing and a consultant at De Novo Corp., a Hockessin, Del., firm that handles, among other things, advertising campaigns for financial institutions, also came up with examples of companies that seemed to have targeted their dollars more effectively.

He cited American Express Co.'s campaign for Blue, a hybrid chip and magnetic stripe card, as one that relied on expensive television and direct-mail campaigns but offered a product with enough value and appeal to lure in millions of consumers. "The utility of the chip is minimal, but the allure is tremendous," he said.

American Express will not say how many people have signed up for Blue, but Brittain Associates Inc., an Atlanta market research firm that regularly polls consumers about their credit cards, estimated this month that the number of Blue accounts has surpassed five million.

Mr. Keenan also cited NextCard Inc., the credit card monoline that issues a Visa card meant for Internet purchases, as a company that has used its marketing dollars prudently. NextCard started out by advertising almost exclusively on the Internet, and then "they quickly learned that this can't be the only way we reach our prospects," and began running television commercials, he said.

The Wingspan story is "still playing out," Mr. Keenan said. "Many people felt that Wingspan, through the initial stages of trying to grab their portion of the Internet business, lost. The thing we learned is you have to have value for your customers. With Wingspan, they really sold the novelty of the Internet itself, and not the value to the customer, and that's where they missed their focus."

As for Mr. Vague, whose dab hand at direct marketing led the First USA credit card empire to the top of its business, there is still time to apply the lessons learned from Wingspan.

His new company has raised more than $114 million of capital (for the record, only a fraction of that will be spent on marketing), and has just begun blanketing U.S. mailboxes with offers for the Juniper MasterCard. The solicitation is eye-catching: it features a translucent envelope with bands of white, blue, green, and yellow that mirror the colors of the card. Time will tell if this old-fashioned approach is still best.


From Our Archive:

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.