United New Mexico Financial Corp. is probably the only bank in the nation with a hot-air balloon pilot on its payroll -- and that's just one of the unique aspects of the Albuquerque company's marketing campaign.
Floating in the heavens above the towns of New Mexico on any given weekend is one of three silver-and-white balloons operated by the $1.7 billion-asset company. In a few weeks a fourth, more flamboyant craft will be added to the fleet.
United New Mexico allocates about one-tenth of its annual marketing budget of about $600,000 to put its name into the sky, said Sandra Miller, the bank's vice president and director of marketing.
The basic silver-and-white balloons cost roughly $30,000; a brand new piggy-bank-shapped pink beauty that will soon be unveiled costs about $70,000. The fleet costs between $50,000 and $60,000 a year to maintain, Ms. Miller said.
The giant playthings are viewed by the bank as the ultimate marketing tool. Select customers are offered rides, and the bank sponsors programs with local schools.
United New Mexico gets extra billing by participating in the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October.
The balloon project began five years ago and has been incorporated throughout United New Mexico's advertising and promotional campaigns.
It calls itself "the bank with the balloons," depicts balloons on billboards and TV spots, offers a Miss Penny Savings Club to schoolchildren, and hands out balloon-emblazoned T-shirts, water bottles, suspenders, and knapsacks.
This year's big addition to the scene is Miss Penny, a bright pink balloon in the shape of a piggy bank that is punctuated with a curlicue tail.
School kids participated in a contest to name the pulchritudinous porker, which will make its debut at next month's festival.
United New Mexico also expects to get some free national advertising from its balloon. The anchor team from "Good Morning America" will broadcast scenes of the balloon festival while aboard Miss Penny, Ms. Miller said.
Employee morale tends to lift along with the balloons, bank officials said. Balloon crews are drawn from the bank's staff. Rising at 4:30 a.m. on weekends, teams of employees take turns operating the craft.
Some go aloft while others work as trackers on the ground, following the craft as it moves to the rhythms of the winds.
People spontaneously forward dozens of photos of the balloons to the bank each year, testifying to their promotional value, Ms. Miller said.
A key to making the program work, she said, is having a pilot with the skill to operate the balloons safely and the showmanship to entertain customers and media people who become passengers.
Since the program was initiated five years ago, the balloon pilot has been Wayne Bond, the husband of a previous marketing director. He has no plans to leave, Ms. Miller said.
His duties include training employee ground crews and ushering passengers. The bank has recorded just one balloon accident: An employee broke an arm and a leg when wind upended a balloon upon landing.