Summer is coming, and so are the blimps. If you’ve attended a major sporting event or gazed into the sky around a major city, you’ve probably seen one floating overhead, boldly branded with a company name and logo. Just because everyone has seen a blimp doesn’t mean that everyone understands their marketing role.
“I think there’s a bit of a view in the advertising world that these ships are purely aerial billboards. There is certainly a value to a client putting their logo and name on the side of blimp, but if you’re flying around just doing that, you’re not availing yourself of the opportunities that a blimp provides,” says Toby Page, Marketing Director, The Lightship Group, which operates 17 blimps worldwide.
To make the most of a blimp, you need it to fly as part of an integrated marketing strategy that can include television broadcasting, print or other advertising. You need a long-term planning process, since there are only 25 or so full-sized blimps in the world, making it hard to find one available for your campaigns. You need creative ways to measure ROI, since blimps don’t offer the kind of direct measurements that, say, an email marketing campaign offers. And you need money … lots of money.
Given those challenges, we spoke to several blimp operators and marketers who have used the airships to get their strategies on designing a high-impact, high-flying campaign:
-> Tactic #1. Make a long-term plan
OK, you can’t just hire a blimp for a weekend or to fly over one event. Blimp companies require a three-month or six-month minimum contract, because of the time it takes to prepare the ship with the appropriate artwork (often three or six months) and develop a flight plan.
Shorter-term contracts may be available if there’s a gap between the end of one contract and the start of another, but most marketers use blimps for several months or years.
Preparing a flight plan will depend on your marketing goals (more on those later). Key questions:
- Will it be part of a sales promotion?
- Are you going to focus on television broadcast opportunities?
- Do you want to target a series of sporting events, such as NASCAR races or the PGA golf tour, which will limit your ability to fit other events in between?
- Are you targeting specific demographics, or does your brand appeal to a mass audience?
While blimps are often associated with sporting events, consider the marketing potential of other opportunities, such as:
o An “icons” tour, during which the blimp visits national landmarks, such as the St. Louis Arch, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon, etc.
o Trade shows at which your company is appearing
o Outdoor concerts
o Large state fairs or other mass gatherings
-> Tactic #2. Budget accordingly
Between preparation and the cost of fuel, helium and crew, a blimp isn’t cheap. Blimp leasing company Airship Management Services ballparks its operating costs at around $350,000 a month.
Lightship Group says a campaign can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $5 million, depending on the size of the airship, the extent of travel and complexity of the marketing campaigns. “It’s not like we have rack rates,” Page jokes.
Still, marketers who use blimps say the costs are reasonable compared to other high-profile sponsorship and sports marketing options. “We looked at the cost of what the blimp project could be versus what we could do with that same money for things like NASCAR or signage at baseball parks, and there was almost no comparison,” says Alan Foster, VP Corporate Communications, Sanyo.
For marketers whose budgets don’t run into the high five or six figures, Larry Weil of Weil & Associates, a sports marketing and sponsorship agency, says to consider the following options:
o Offering paid tourism flights in addition to your marketing efforts to help recoup operating costs
o Explore co-op arrangements with major partners or suppliers
o Consider timeshare arrangements with other brands for blimps equipped with video screens (if you’re brands are complementary, not competitive)
-> Tactic #3. Measure your ROI
The impact of a blimp campaign isn’t the easiest thing to measure, and, like the event marketing industry, blimp operators have worked hard to develop metrics for marketers. Ways to calculate ROI include:
- Audience reach. By tracking where and when your blimp is flying, you can estimate the number of people who have been exposed to your brand or message. A study by the sponsorship research firm Joyce Julius & Associates estimates that a major brand’s blimp marketing campaign generated 126 million impressions worth $2.5 million in the course of a month by visiting a major golf tournament, a four-day baseball series at Dodgers Stadium and a drag race in Las Vegas.
- The value of broadcast time in exchange for aerial filming. Compare the cost of an advertising spot during a major sporting event with the amount of free air time and mentions you receive in exchange for providing aerial footage.
- Results of sales promotions. Compare the results from markets where the blimp flew with those from areas that didn’t have blimp support. Lightship Group found that a client’s bottled water promotion delivered a 9% sales lift in markets where its blimp flew compared with non-blimp markets.
- Anecdotal evidence. Marketers who use blimps say they hear from consumers around the country who noticed their brand flying overhead. “I get emails from people wherever it goes,” Foster says. “Most of the time, they indicate they’d like to go for ride.”
-> Tactic #4. Blimp artwork
In one sense, blimps *are* big, flying billboards. They’re typically about 100 feet to 200 feet long and 30 feet to 60 feet high, giving you a large surface to display your message. But you have to consider several factors:
- Size and complexity of your message. In general, you want to keep your blimp artwork simple and eye-catching. A basic logo or company name is an obvious choice, since it can dominate the available space on the blimp’s balloon, known as an “envelope.”
That’s the style adopted by many marketers, including H.P. Hood and Sanyo. Some companies have chosen to put tag lines or other text onto their blimps, but do so with caution. At 1,000 feet, lots of text can be harder to read, minimizing the impact of the message. Sanyo considered adding taglines to its logo but decided against it. “You want people to say, ‘Oh, the Sanyo blimp,’ not, ‘It’s the orange blimp,’ ” Foster explains.
- Daytime or nighttime use. Most blimps can be illuminated from the inside, allowing your image to show up at night. A good design will be equally eye-catching and colorful whether flying during the day or glowing in the night sky. “They almost look better in night, lit up from nose to tail,” says Page.
- Multimedia messages. Some blimps come equipped with large video screens on their sides, allowing marketers to use almost any creative that can be loaded onto a laptop and hooked into the display -- video, still images and other graphics.
-> Tactic #5. Integration with other promotions
Blimps are great for creating brand awareness, but also should be used as an element of broader national or regional campaigns, such as specific sales promotions, consumer contests and other activation programs or cause-related marketing. Here are three examples:
- Aquafina used two blimps for a “Get Spotted Drinking and Win”
contest, which flew over more than 60 cities awarding prizes to consumers seen drinking its bottled water.
- Ameriquest created the “Soaring Dreams” program, which allowed children in after-school programs and pediatric hospitals around the country to paint special panels that were applied to the blimp to create a unique piece of art. The blimp then toured the country while Ameriquest sold Soaring Dreams merchandise, such as hats, T-shirts and piggy banks shaped like a blimp, with the proceeds going toward youth programs.
- Goodyear -- the most famous blimp operator -- made its flagship blimps the centerpiece of a new print and television advertising this year touting the company’s history of innovation and safety.
-> Tactic #6. Aerial filming opportunities
Providing aerial camera shots of major sporting events and other outdoor activities is a major use for most blimps. In exchange for providing the platform and the camera equipment, the blimp’s sponsor receives free air time in the form of shots of the blimp flying over the event and mention by the broadcast team (“Today’s aerial footage provided by the Budweiser airship.”).
Be prepared, though: Providing the equipment is expensive ($10,000-$15,000 a day), and the networks know there is high demand for the aerial filming rights at national events like a Monday Night Football game or a major golf tournament. This means that you may have to pay for the rights on top of paying for the equipment and your blimp’s operating time. The value of the television exposure you get in return will depend on how many on-air mentions and camera shots you negotiate with the broadcaster.
Generally speaking, the larger the brand’s clout and existing advertising relationship with the broadcaster, the more leverage it will have in the negotiations. Another approach is to target some of the less popular events where the broadcasters and organizers are excited to have blimp coverage just like the big boys.
Sanyo has found success sending its blimps to college football games and stops on the LPGA golf tour. “If you go to a college game or LPGA or some places in the second tier, they just love you,” Foster says. “When you’re playing in first tier, they kind of take you for granted.”
-> Tactic #7. Take advantage of the PR bonanza
Blimps are a media magnet. Anywhere your blimp flies on its national or regional tour, take part in the local media interest. “When you land, I promise you that every station will send someone out to cover it,” says Weil. Weil helped Ameriquest with its blimp marketing program, and now works with Airship Management Services to secure corporate clients.
Ways to get coverage include:
o Pitch stories about the blimp and its pilots in local newspapers
o Offer flights to town officials, reporters, and local sports or entertainment figures
o Provide aerial coverage for local television news stations
o Give live remotes for local radio stations
-> Tactic #8. Give the blimp a home on the Web
Depending on where you’re flying, blimps can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people a day. Use the Web to give those people an easy way to interact with the airship even after it’s out of sight. Two ways:
- Goodyear has a home page dedicated to its blimp fleet, providing history of the blimps, vital statistics, information about how they’re built and operated and multimedia images incorporating the iconic ships. Sanyo and MetLife also have dedicated sections of their home pages for their blimps.
- Blimp blogging is a newer approach adopted by the airship known as the Spirit of Dubai. It was flown across Europe last winter, visiting ancient and modern landmarks along the way, to celebrate the opening of the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai -- a man-made island shaped like a palm tree. During the trip, the pilots updated a blog with their impressions of the flight, as well as the inside story of a long-haul blimp journey, such as how to deal with restricted airspace.Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from blimp campaigns:
Airship Management Services:
Joyce Julius and Associates:
Van Wagner Airship Group LLC:
The Spirit of Dubai:
Weil & Associates: