Since the RE/MAX hot air balloon first flew in 1978, it has continually elevated the brand to new heights
By Katharine Davis
The RE/MAX Hot Air Balloon can be seen everywhere – from Mexico to New Zealand, television spots to bus stops. It’s on business cards, websites and hundreds of thousands of yard signs. But when the winds are calm and the weather is just right, there’s no better place to see the RE/MAX Balloon than in the sky.
That’s why on this crisp fall morning, almost 35 years to the day from the first flight, a crowd is gathered in the predawn darkness. As the sun begins to rise, so, too, does the unmistakable balloon envelope.
The burner – loud and powerful – lifts the basket with its intermittent glow. The sky – now a stunning collection of vibrant oranges, pinks and blues – serves as a mere backdrop for a masterpiece: the red, white and blue RE/MAX Balloon.
Though we, the spectators, remain planted firmly on the ground, our collective gaze follows the balloon as it makes its journey over homes, highways and mesmerized onlookers. It’s beautiful and it’s captivating – and it’s one of the most iconic corporate symbols on the planet. But the strength of the RE/MAX Balloon isn’t just in its aesthetics. Its strength comes from the offices that use it, the communities that experience it and the millions of impressions it generates each year.
Plus, as Broker Associate Craig Smyser of Texas puts it: “If you’ve ever had the chance to fly in one, you know it’s a heck of a lot of fun.”
Rising to the top
The fun started in 1978 when the RE/MAX network, just 5 years old at the time, was in need of some major brand recognition. It came in the form of a seven-story-tall balloon, swathed in the signature RE/MAX colors and dreamed up by RE/MAX Co-Region Owner Bill Echols. As it floated over the New Mexico desert during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, the RE/MAX Balloon immediately commanded the attention of local spectators – and instantly provided the publicity Echols sought for RE/MAX. Word of its success spread across the regions, and soon the popular visual of the balloon helped make RE/MAX a household name. The corporate logo had been born.
The RE/MAX Balloon certainly attracted attention then, but today, with more than 100 balloons in the fleet and regular flights in 26 countries, it garners more interest than ever. It has appeared at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium during Finland’s 2012 Winter Classic hockey game, above the 2013 Canadian Open in Oakville, Ontario, and in the 2013 U.S. National Hot Air Balloon National Championship in Longview, Texas.
These scenes – and so many like them – are a reason RE/MAX remains the No. 1 name in real estate.
“The balloon is a unique and powerful advertising medium,” says Smyser, during a call from his office at RE/MAX Capital City in Austin, Texas. “It draws people’s attention. I mean, when was the last time you came across someone who wouldn’t stop to look at a hot air balloon going by?”
Steve Lombardi, Aviation Director of RE/MAX of Texas and founder of the Ballunar Liftoff Festival in Houston, agrees.
“The best part about it: Even if you have a hundred billboards, nobody’s going to take a picture of a billboard,” he says. “But if you put that balloon up along the side of the road, you’re going to get a hundred people stopping to take pictures.”
As Katharina Weiss, Regional Administrator of RE/MAX Deutschland Mitte (Germany Middle), explains, “It’s a big promotion for us. People are fascinated by the RE/MAX Balloon because they don’t see hot air balloons every day.”
“We’re not just some small, local company. The RE/MAX Hot Air Balloon ties us all together as one huge network.” Kitty Moring
Harnessing that brand power is a no-brainer for Rich Moen, Broker/Owner of RE/MAX Solutions in Watertown, Wis. When his town’s local festival, Riverfest, no longer allowed tethered balloon rides, Moen turned to festival flyovers. Planning the launch point and flight route to maximize visibility is part of the strategy, but for Moen the greatest publicity came from an unplanned source.
“A couple of years ago, the lead singer of Kansas happened to see the balloon as he was performing. He stopped and said, ‘Hey, gang, there’s the RE/MAX Balloon,’” Moen remembers. “Everybody looked up. You have the lead singer of Kansas acknowledging the RE/MAX Balloon going by – you can’t buy that exposure.”
The RE/MAX Hot Air Balloon was first imagined on the streets of New Mexico, in the car of Bill Echols. As the then Co-Region Owner of the New Mexico/Arizona/Nevada region drove to his office one day, he saw four hot air balloons flying overhead. Instantly he knew: RE/MAX belonged in the sky.
Echols fought hard for his vision – bringing the balloon to life, flying it for the first time at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 1978 and championing its ongoing use. What began as a means of advertising in New Mexico quickly spread across the regions. Just a few years later, the balloon became the RE/MAX corporate logo. “Above the Crowd!” – also dreamt up by Echols – was the slogan to punctuate it all.
Though he got his start in radio, Echols was a RE/MAX man through and through. The RE/MAX Distinguished Service Award winner served the brand in many roles, including advertising director, aide to the Chairman and Vice President of Public Relations. Sadly, he passed away in 2009.
Standing for something
That kind of recognizability inspires regions, offices and agents to use the balloon in all sorts of creative ways.
For instance, Wayne Crosby, Broker/Owner of RE/MAX of Midland, in Midland, Mich., co-founded the RE/MAX of Midland Balloon Festival in 1990. He and co-founder Tom Bergeon, Balloonmeister for the RE/MAX of Michigan Region, saw a need in the community – and a way to fill it. Combining the allure of the Balloon with the fundraising campaign of the local United Way, they created what is now thought to be the second-largest balloon festival east of the Mississippi River.
“It’s a two-fold thing,” Crosby says. “It reminds the community that there are always people less fortunate out there, so you need to reach out and help your fellow man. It also makes it far easier for our agents to do business because the whole community embraces us.”
Bergeon notes that one of the best ways to reach the public is through schools. Bergeon visits 25 schools annually to present a series of five educational programs, each detailing the science and history of man’s first form of flight. An inflated balloon on school grounds instantly engages the students and helps introduce RE/MAX to a larger audience.
Kitty Moring, Broker/Owner of RE/MAX Professional Advantage in Byron, Ill., knows that children who participate in the RE/MAX school programs (RE/MAX of Northern Illinois hosts 50 a year) take home much more than free collateral.
“I have 500 kids seeing the RE/MAX Balloon when they’re 9 years old,” she says. “That’s an impact of a lifetime and an experience they’ll never forget.”
Remaining ‘Above the Crowd’
Whether it involves consumers flying over Australia or athletes watching a costumed Balloon Man cross the finish line at a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, every balloon event has helped the RE/MAX Hot Air Balloon expand from a one-time flight in the desert to the international icon it is today.
“It’s an added value we can give our customers,” says Cathy Walker, a Sales Associate with RE/MAX All-Stars Realty in Markham, Ontario. “I’m always looking for fun ways to contact my clients. Hosting a balloon event provides another excuse to call or email them. It gives me an extra reason to talk to people, and it also gives people a reason to talk to me about real estate.”
Conversation is exactly what Echols and other champions of the RE/MAX Balloon hoped to inspire back in 1978. Thirty-five years later, it’s what keeps the balloon in the air.
“I’ve heard people say, as the RE/MAX Balloon flies overhead, ‘I used them to sell my house,’” says Moen, the Wisconsin Broker/Owner. “People have a relationship with the balloon because they worked with me to buy or sell a home.”
Adds Walker, who is often asked by local businesses, including the City of Markham, to use the Balloon at area events: “People always tell me, ‘I saw the RE/MAX Balloon today’ – even if the flight has nothing to do with me. The balloon is unique and stands out, so it’s certainly making them notice us.”
For her part, Moring hopes all Affiliates understand that the balloon works for them.
“We’re not just some small, local company,” she says. “The RE/MAX Hot Air Balloon ties us all together as one huge network.”