In a move that may tempt critics to call the company "full of hot air," America Online (AOL)
announced today the inflation of
its very own hot air balloon.
The seven-story-tall aircraft will embark on a 100-city, three-year tour,
starting with an appearance April 11 at the National Cherry Blossom
Festival in Washington. Adorned with 30-foot-tall AOL logos, the
balloon will offer tethered rides, weather permitting. But more is riding
on the tour than thrill-seekers.
"We're looking to take
our strong online community brand out and touch the
world in offline ways," said AOL senior vice president of brand marketing
Audrey Weil. "We're always looking for ways to spark people's imagination
and show that AOL has a strong, vibrant, grassroots, big-picture brand.
We think the balloon is a really good symbol for that."
Internet Advertising Bureau president
Rich LeFurgy said he expected the marketing stunt to really take off.
"I think it's a phenomenal idea," said LeFurgy, who is also senior
vice president of advertising for a joint venture between ABCNews.com (which has content agreements
with both AOL and NEWS.COM) and ESPN.
"It's the start of the
mainstreaming of digital brands at the consumer level. Up to now we've seen
a little bit of television advertising, some print ads, and Yahoo has ventured onto radio," LeFurgy said. "But in
terms of event marketing like this, taking the brand out to the people, we
haven't seen very much. This will get potential Web users to literally
stand up and take notice of the brand."
But some analysts cautioned that critics and rivals could deflate AOL's
"Digerati will be tempted to say that AOL has its head in the clouds,"
warned Peter Storck, group director for online advertising at Jupiter Communications. "A hot air balloon
is by definition a sitting duck. Lycos,
Excite, Yahoo, and access providers
could be tempted to shoot arrows at AOL's balloon. It may not float."
AOL has long been known for its aggressive marketing techniques, including
mass mailing of its software with free hours for new users. But the
company has been relatively quiet on the marketing front of late,
according to Forrester Research
analyst Kate Delhagen, who applauded the campaign.
"This will be a good launch pad for their 1998 marketing efforts," she