On a clear day an airship can help to lift your advertising campaign off the ground and get your name on TV, and at £130,000 a month it's cheaper than other media.
Strange how some things wind up being used in ways their creators never intended. Take the airship, an invention that entered the century hailed as a revolutionary form of transportation and which now, after brief spells as a passenger carrier, radar platform and military look-out post, looks set to leave it as an aerial billboard.
'If you want people to sit up and take notice of both you and your product then an airship can be highly effective,' claims David Honey, marketing manager of Fuji Film UK. Fuji first used an airship in the UK in the early 1980s as part of a drive to challenge Kodak's dominance. In the intervening years its blimp - a vast vinyl envelope filled with several thousand cubic metres of inert helium - could be seen in the skies above numerous British cities, motorways and a range of outdoor events.
The airship's appeal is readily explained by both its novelty and extreme visibility. 'It's a lot more intrusive than most forms of advertising - much more so, say, than a stationary billboard,' says Hugh Band, marketing director of Virgin Lightships, the Branson subsidiary that is now the world's largest operator of airships. At around £130,000 a month it's also a lot cheaper than other media. In most cases, says Band, that cost can be offset by the TV exposure that comes with the airship's additional role as a camera platform at sports fixtures. It can also be used as a passenger carrier for corporate hospitality and staff incentive schemes.
For the launch of its Orange mobile phone service last year Hutchison Telecom used an airship as the cornerstone of a £3 million programme to support retailers and dealers. The blimp, it says, played a key part in its bid to raise awareness of a new brand in a crowded market. Mazda Cars UK has currently chartered the same airship for nine months, in which time it is touring 125 dealers and being used to entertain clients. 'On a relatively small marketing budget it's a very cost-effective way of giving a single dealer a massive presence,' explains Tim Osler, Mazda's dealer marketing manager. 'When it's in an area it's also a superb means of outgunning our rivals.' There are some drawbacks, however, most notably the weather. At one point, Fuji's airship was grounded for three weeks because of low cloud. There's also the matter of its stately pace. 'When you move on to the next location it can take a long time to get there,' says Fuji's Honey. 'You might spend two or three days flying over cows and sheep.' David Partridge, managing director of Air-to-Air, an agency that specialises in aerial promotions, claims that a blimp isn't always the answer. Some clients are better off with a balloon. 'For the cost of chartering an airship for a month you could build a specially-shaped balloon and run it for a year,' he says. Yet if balloons are more popular than airships that's largely due to the latter's scarcity; as yet there is only one operational blimp based in the UK. For Partridge, however, that's not a bad thing. 'One is probably enough for a country this size,' he claims. 'Any more and they could start to become irritating.'.