The Value of Signs

Determining a sign’s worth in the information age.
Landmark Signs (New York). Photo courtesy of Lucinda Grange/Landmark Signs.

We can all agree signs matter. And not just because it’s the business we’re in. After all, who hasn’t turned down the radio and leaned forward, eyes squinting, hunting for an on-premise sign? Or spied a digital billboard hawking ice cream just as you left a movie theater and thought, that would hit the spot! I’ll admit I’ve steered my car into the parking lot of new a store or restaurant simply because I saw their signage pop up in my neighborhood – without consulting Yelp or Google reviews first. Shocking, right?

We rely on signs every day to locate an address, advertise and publicize clients’ brands 24/7, as well as capture and hold the attention of new and existing customers. So why do we find ourselves still trying to justify a sign’s value? According to the Intl. Sign Assn.’s “Signs as Marketing” (ISA; Fairfax, VA), signs are now so commonplace that we – and our clients – hardly notice them, which might explain the disconnect between how much a sign should cost and how much money it will bring in. The following case studies from signshops around the country represent a few examples of a sign’s value in terms of brand impact, building a better community and determining return on investment.

A SIGN OF RESPECT

Midtown Signs (Kansas City, KS)
Midtown Signs (Kansas City, KS). Photo courtesy of Sally Morrow/Midtown Signs.

Have you ever eaten BBQ sold out of a gas station? I know it sounds shady, but what if I told you it was the best BBQ in Kansas City? Still a maybe? Well, you’d never know from the tiny, unassuming gas station with the small, neon BBQ sign that the even tinier restaurant within was named one of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” by Anthony Bourdain. But there it is.

“On-premise signs can help ease a new customer’s concerns,” said Dennis Baughman, owner of Midtown Signs in Kansas City, KS. “No doubt about it.” And this self-admitted BBQ fanatic knows a thing or two about good food, and even more about good signage. Since 2003, Midtown’s been the go-to shop for unique, multi-dimensional, illuminated signs that bridge the gap between industrial and commercial art. Baughman and his team of 16 fulltime employees believe that more than any other form of advertising, a business’s sign has the best return on investment.

According to a 2012 study by the Univ. of Cincinnati, about three-fourths of consumers have entered a business or referred a friend because of a sign that made the business stand out, and two-thirds have made a purchase as a result. Consumers also indicated that substandard signage – or the absence of any signage – deterred them from entering a store.

“The right sign can elevate a business’s professionalism,” Baughman said. “It can add an air of legitimacy and remove doubt about a service or product. How do you put a price tag on that?” Signs also provide a sense of community, he said, by conveying what a business is and what it does – not only to customers, but to everyone in the surrounding area as a trust-builder. “Does it welcome customers, like those found in a retail environment, or work to detour unwanted traffic, like what you’d want in an industrial park?” Baughman asked, adding that both sentiments help brand a location and set expectations.

(ALMOST NEVER) DROP THE BALL

When you’ve been in the sign business for more than 30 years, you pick up a thing or two. Or, in the case of Joe Calvano, president of Landmark Signs (New York), you literally pick things up, and then drop them – like the Times Square Ball that’s been part of the New Year’s Eve celebration for generations. “In the ’80s,” Calvano said, “about two dozen of us lowered it by hand. Nowadays, we’ve made it all mechanical. But back then? Talk about nerve-wracking.”

One of only a dozen licensed Master Sign Hangers in New York City, Calvano, along with his father, founder Anthony Calvano, estimated the company is responsible for the production or installation of around 80% of the signage up in Times Square, including the iconic NASDAQ MarketSite, Bank of America, Dunkin Donuts and Disney Store signs.

They’re also one of the partners behind what Guinness World Records™ would term the world’s first and largest 3D robotic billboard, a 68 x 42-ft. piece designed and built for Coca-Cola. With nearly 1,800 independently moving LED screens – all choreographed to Coca-Cola-produced content – the six-story sign was designed to inspire thirsty onlookers to crave an ice-cold Coke and create a multi-sensory experience for the estimated 50 million people who pass through the busy Manhattan intersection each year. Imagine the brand ROI.

“Times Square is one of the most visited attractions in the world,” Calvano said. “So the space that’s available, it’s like ad spots for the Super Bowl. Everything’s in the millions of dollars, from the signs themselves to the ad revenue they generate.” And because of that limited, expensive inventory, brand protection is at a premium. “On any given day, we have 20 guys stationed all over, making sure everything looks good and is working perfectly,” Calvano said. Because when one of these signs goes down, the costs to brands can be sky high.

SCIENCE MEETS SIGNAGE

In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Deryl Cason Jr., marketing products and project manager at FastSigns, believes signs and visual graphics are not only important to a business’s livelihood, they’re the “silent employee” that helps promote the brand’s message. “Signs can make or break a customer’s experience,” Cason said. “They have the power to sway buying decisions, from colorful outside window graphics all the way to point-of-purchase signage.”

With more than 660 locations worldwide, FastSigns has spent decades perfecting the art of printing signs, banners and more to meet clients’ visual communications needs. In 2015, the company added 3M™ Visual Attention Software to its design service offering.

Described as a DIY tool by 3M, the software uses proven, scientific analysis and data to measure the visibility and effectiveness of sign designs and placements through a “first-glance measurement.” “This technology allows a FastSigns professional to use a desktop, tablet or smartphone to upload and analyze customer layouts, photos, and mockups,” Cason said, “and in about 30 seconds they’ll get five reports that predict which signs, or more importantly, distractions, are most likely to attract visual attention.” The professionals, Cason noted, can then present customers with a virtual preview of proposed new signage and graphics in their location, and rate the efficacy of each.

While not an infallible predictor of value (accuracy for the technology is between 85-90%), with the Visual Attention Software, FastSigns locations are not only able to continue to produce quality signs and graphics for a variety of businesses and industries, but those same signs and graphics are made more effective and more likely to achieve the customers’ business challenges. A win for all involved.

FREQUENCY AND THE FUTURE

YESCO (Salt Lake City)
YESCO (Salt Lake City)

Watching the trailers for the since-released film “Blade Runner 2049,” as flying cars travel around futuristic cities, the visuals that stand out the most are the giant, holographic billboards featuring recognizable brand names and larger-than-life supermodels. Even in the future, there is signage.

“That’s no accident,” said Jeff Young, sr. vice president and CMO at Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO; Salt Lake City). “Customers are paying top dollar, despite economic challenges, because everyone recognizes the need for signs. We don’t see that changing any time soon.” With 40 locations and nearly 100 years in the business, not to mention some of the most iconic signs ever created, including “Vegas Vic,” the Wynn Las Vegas Resort sign and the historic El Capitan and Wax Museum marquees in Hollywood, YESCO is making big investments in digital billboard technology.

To support this expansion, Young references a 2009 Arbitron National In-Car Study, in which observers viewed the dynamically-generated content of electronic billboards around twice as often as static billboards. “When you do the math,” Young said, “there’s a direct return on investment when marketing with signage versus using some other medium, like print or the Internet.” And with the ability of digital billboards to change up messaging on a dime, businesses can see the results of their marketing campaigns in record time.

To that end, YESCO has partnered with another company, Blip Billboards (see ST, November 2017, page 40), to capitalize on selling unused digital billboard ad space in the Utah market, even something as short as a 10-second spot. So if you’re a restaurant looking to recruit reservations on a slow night or a hotel looking to fill vacancies in an off-week, you can set the time, date and length of the spot, which determines the cost of the buy. Young noted that this technology puts the balance of power back in the hands of the client, and not just the sign company. “There will always be value in signs,” Young said, “because consumers will always be looking for them.”

Signs of the Times August 2020

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