Big balloons are the perfect vehicle to raise your profile

They may be a lousy was of getting from A to B but hot air balloons offer one of the most noticeable and popular forms of advertising.

I took my first hot air balloon trip at the weekend; a mildly surreal experience, especially on a morning when the most obstinately refused to clear and we drifted over Warwickshire with the ground only intermittently visible.

Part of the charm is the profound uselessness of the whole exercise. It’s a lousy way of getting from A to B, since balloons are at the mercy of the winds: you have no idea of your destination until you get there. They only have two purposes: sightseeing from an unusual angle…and advertising.

Cameron Balloons of Bristol (“the General Motors of the ballooning industry”) reckon more than 90% of the balloons they build – many of which go for export – carry some sort of logo or sponsor’s message.

An average-sized balloon, complete with basket, burners and all the gear, will cost you £20,000. A specially-built novelty shaped balloon can range from £25,000 for something shaped like a can or bottle to £100,000 for racing car. One man in Japan has a balloon made in the shape of his Labrador dog and its two puppies, but Alan Noble of Cameron wouldn’t tell me how much that cost.

Cameron has built balloons for, among many others, BP, Esso, Shell, IBM, Lloyds, Barclays, HSBC, Bristol and West, Ford, Toyota, Porsche, Volvo, Honda, Vodaphone, Sony, Orange, Nescafe, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Durex – that one, according to ballooning lore, once came down in the playground of a girls’ Roman Catholic convent school.

On top of the construction costs there is an operational fee of perhaps £1,000 a day to cover the cost of a pilot and ground crew and insurance premiums of more than £1,000 a year. Alternatively, you can invest in a (cheaper) one-man craft to fly, perhaps tethered, above fairs and shows.

Balloons are not especially good as a targeted advertising medium. They tend to fly first thing in the morning or early in the evening, when winds are suitably light, predominantly in rural areas. Since predicting the direction of travel is tricky, it’s often a matter of chance who sees them. But they also fly from balloon meetings in big cities, which attract big crowds: the UK’s largest, in Bristol, claims 200,000 come to watch the balloons launching. And the sponsor can always offer free rides to staff, customers or other corporate guests.

The Kent Messenger newspaper group sponsors one of the largest balloons flying operated by a company called Kent Ballooning, which has a basket big enough to hold 16 passengers. KM’s marketing manager, Susan Luckhurst, calls it “a very photogenic type of advertising for our brand”, which during the summer months flies on average perhaps three times a week.

Luckhurst says the company targets the outdoor events across the country, with the result that the balloon is seen by many thousands of people during the course of a summer. In June, for instance, it flew over the Elton John concert in Canterbury.

The paper offers rides to readers as competition prizes, takes loyal advertisers up from time to time and gives away tickets on request for charity raffles and auctions.

If the number of people ringing up to ask how they can hitch a ride is any guide, the medium gets a good response. And for KM it is free –the paper gets exposure, while the balloon company gets free advertising.

Some brands invest in more than one balloon. Underwear brand Sloggi sponsors two: they’re competition balloons, adorned with semi-naked underwear models, which tour the world, under the Team Sloggi moniker.

Sue Loder, a company spokeswoman, says the balloons generate a good deal of publicity, and there’s the added benefit of being able to offer trips in one of the balloons, which carries 16 people. The only downside, according to both Loder and Kent Messenger’s Luckhurst, is the unpredictability of the weather: a bad summer means cancelled flights. But Loder is philosophical. She quotes the Team Sloggi pilot Andrew Holley: “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were up than up wishing you were down.”

And yes, there is such a thing as competitive ballooning, which depends on participants’ skill at manoeuvring the balloon over targets and steering, by ascending and descending in search of winds travelling in different directions. Sloggi’s sister brand, bra manufacturer Triumph, has an even bigger pair (of balloons).

Another Kent company, Classic Hot Air Balloons, operates sponsored craft for Pimms and Saga. As the firm’s website says: “Balloons are the only advert people photograph. They are a transportable billboard that the public, press and TV take notice of.” They may not have the impact of a full-colour magazine ad or roadside poster, but you can’t fly at treetop height in a poster and no-one ever stopped the car to stare at a passing magazine advertisement.

And as to that “useless” tag, Liz Meek, of Classic Hot Air Balloons, counters with a remark allegedly made by the sage Benjamin Franklin, while watching an early balloon flight back in 1783. “Of what use if ballooning?” a fellow bystander is said to have asked. “Of what use is a newborn baby?” Franklin replied.

Nick Higham presents Factfile on BBC News 24

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