SAN FRANCISCO: ING Direct recently took Bay Area commuters for a ride - a free one.The bank, accessible online and by phone, provided free rides on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) during last Thursday's morning rush hour, the first time any company has paid for free rides across the transit system. "This was an introductory event," said Ashlee Stokes, head of communications for the Wilmington, DE-based company. "We don't have branches, so we try to align ourselves with something local." As the company's first promotional event in the Bay Area, Stokes said ING Direct wanted to draw comparisons between itself and BART. "Their messaging is aligned with ours. We save you money, we're simple to use, and efficient, same as BART." Through signs and other promotional materials in ING Direct's corporate color of orange commuters were alerted as to who was making the free ride possible. ING Direct "ambassadors" were also clad in orange jumpsuits and handed out information about the company. It was all part of a direct approach in letting BART's more than 100,000 commuters know what ING Direct is all about. "We have 1.5 million customers," said Stokes. "And we've always done our marketing geographically. We've gotten about 40% of our customers through word of mouth. So that's how we have customers in the Bay Area, even though we haven't done any marketing here until now." But for those who didn't hear word of mouth, or somehow missed the orange-adorned BART Stations, ING Direct's PR firm, Plesser Associates, has helped drum up media coverage, first in the San Francisco Chronicle over the slow news cycle of Thanksgiving, and then via AP, which helped generate plenty of broadcast coverage in advance. And while the media coverage has focused on the free ride, ING has gotten a lot of publicity for making it all possible. So Bay Area transit history was made, BART gets a chance to pick up a few new riders, and ING Direct likely wins a few more customers as they race to catch their train.