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Print My Ride!

Graphic, colorful wide-format print rages on urban and suburban streets and highways, screaming past at 35, 45, 55+ miles per hour. You can pimp your ride and have your rims, but what your customers' commercial passenger vehicles really may need is some vinyl—of the vibrantly printed variety. If it's bling they want on their cars, trucks, buses, vans, RVs, and/or trailers, today there are chrome-simulated options. Specialty media include Avery Dennison's new Conform Chrome, an accent film that was applied at the ISA International Sign Expo 2012 and began shipping on March 30. Similarly, Metro Chrome Mirror Vinyl films from online supplier Metro Restyling are designed to give a brilliant, chrome-polished, finished look; plus they feature an outdoor rating of up to five years. 3M Scotchprint 1080 vinyl car wraps are available in aluminum, metal, and brushed metal finishes, depending on the desired look and branding.

These days, it is not that difficult or costly to compete in the custom, decked-out car-wrap game. Lower printer pricing has broken down entry barriers, making wrap production less cost-prohibitive than in the past. If a print firm has or invests in a large-format solvent printer, it can do short runs of vehicle wraps, explained Gary Schellerer, Sr. His Signs By Tomorrow retail shop in Bloomingdale, IL, 20 miles west of Chicago, has been designing, printing, and installing wraps for about a decade. The mobile graphics revenue stream accounted for more than 20 percent of his firm's 2011 sales of around $4 million, he said. Printing is the easy part, according to Schellerer. Design and application, on the other hand, can be quite challenging.

Creative marketers were deploying print on wheels long before 4G network-empowered mobile phones got so "smart." (Wraps can be found on pedicabs in Boston and floating on boats in the harbor.) Numerous studies rank mobile advertising as the most cost-effective and efficient form of major media, reaching more consumers at the absolute lowest cost per thousand (CPM) impressions—at well under $1.00 per thousand. In high-traffic areas, mobile is less than one-fourth the expense of billboards. An ad client might pay as much as $45,000 for a billboard on say, California's Santa Monica (405) Freeway, but a truck with a wrap costs maybe $10,000 for the same time span, according to the Traffic Audit Bureau (TAB) for Media Measurement. By comparison, average CPM impressions for other media are around $3.50 for billboards; $5.00 for a 30-second radio spot; $20.00 for a 30-second TV spot; and $27.00 for a full-page, color magazine ad. (Source: Truck Ads) As most printers are aware, CPM for static direct mail can approach ten times those figures, exceeding $200 per thousand impressions.

Power to Impress

Statistics show that eight of 10 Americans walk in a town, city, or downtown area an average of six miles per week. (See "Pimp My Print") Pedestrian and automotive traffic represents a significant reach opportunity for advertisers. TAB reported that vehicle advertising can generate from 30,000 to 70,000 sightings per day, while an Arbitron Outdoor Study stated that an intra-city truck with graphics can generate as many as 16 million visual impressions annually. Separate research, conducted by 3M Commercial Graphics on behalf of Cadbury-Schweppes' Snapple brand, used GPS units to track 10 trucks through two major metropolitan areas, including San Francisco. These fleet graphics generated the equivalent average of six million Prime Daily Effective Circulation per truck (annualized). That's what wrapping printers call getting extra bang for your 4+ bucks per gallon of gasoline this summer.

Mobile printed graphics also are an extremely influential ad medium. More than nine out of 10 people notice words and pictures when displayed on 40×12-foot trucks, reported the American Trucking Association. Research conducted by agency RYP & Becker Group found that 97 percent of survey respondents recalled the ad on a truck; 98 percent thought the ads created a positive image of the advertiser; and 96 percent thought fleet graphics had more impact than printed or electronic billboards.

$3,000 a Day

Schellerer said his 40-employee Bloomingdale, IL operations have been producing and installing vehicle wraps for 10 years, since adding a 54-inch Océ Arizona 180 solvent inkjet printer for outdoor applications. Situated in a Chicago suburb, his family-run firm (wife Carla and their three sons work there) first became a car-wrap wholesaler to other sign companies; then, they built up the business by doing one-and-dones as well as national fleet branding for 10 to 20 vehicles. Today, producing and installing an average of one wrap per day, vehicle graphics account for some $800,000 in annual sales for the 21-year-old firm. That adds up to some 260 wraps per year, translating to more than $3,000 per job – enough volume to justify a dozen full-time installers on staff.

Back in 2002, when Signs By Tomorrow Bloomingdale invested $80,000 in its large-format Arizona piezo printhead technology, it brought in an experienced installer from within the industry. "It takes practice to get good and efficient," Schellerer explained (see sidebar). "It's not something that's learned overnight." Paul Roba, North American technical manager for Avery Dennison Graphics' reflective solutions, concurred that there definitely is a skill set needed to become a proficient applicator.

Staying one step ahead of what the average sign company has also has been a recipe for competitive success, Schellerer added. "We retired a 60-inch NUR Fresco II in March, after five years," he said. Most of SBT's vehicle graphics are output on 16-foot-wide ExcelJet solvent printers. Solvent-based printers do well with stretching the vinyl, Schellerer said, while output from UV-curable printers (which SBT also has) can break. The firm also houses latex printers, a trio of film laminators, and one liquid laminator. Although the latter is less expensive per square foot for graphic fronts (10 cents vs. about 50 cents), Schellerer cautioned that it is trickier to install because it stretches much easier. "You also have to tape your graphics" output on the liquid laminator, he noted.

Schellerer shared that his fleet business, like most, suffered when the US economy took its nosedive and customers were more concerned about tires, brakes, and vehicle maintenance than graphics and advertising. "Business was pretty stagnant in 2009," he admitted. "We had to discount quite a bit, which affected our P&L." The good news is he has seen the segment coming back again over the past couple of years.

"The trailer market came back strong in 2011," said Tim Boxeth, business manager at 3M Commercial Graphics, adding that the media supplier has seen double-digit growth in each of the past two years for its fleet and commercial passenger vehicle applications. "It's a very cost-effective medium, especially for small- to medium-sized brand owners."

Growing Mobile

The mobile media market is attractive and large enough that publicly traded advertising/marketing conglomerate Omnicom Group bought Signature Graphics, a wide-format print firm in Porter, IN, near Chicago, nearly five years ago. And the potential of mobile media is on the upswing, as the market recovers and rebounds from the economic downturn.

In mid-2011, Fry Fabrications of Arizona started up a printing division called Fry Media Services that produces signage, A-frames, floor/window graphics, and vehicle wraps. "We've been digitally printing for almost two years," said Jim Fry, owner of the metal fabricator which caters to beverage industry clients such as Monster and Rockstar energy drinks. Having only done about 10 vehicle graphics to date on an HP latex printer, Fry admitted to having a tiny "toe print" in the market as opposed to a large footprint. "We us a local guy for installation," he noted.

"There are two big [vehicle wrap] competitors in the Phoenix area," Fry acknowledged, adding that they both do a great job at what they do. But the Fry Media team is gearing up to target higher-end customers this summer with a full-scale marketing push. Taking a cue from his beverage customers, who know that samples sell, Fry has customized a 2008 Ford van with rims, a lift kit, and 3M Carbon Fiber flexible wrap. "It looks like a combination of an urban assault vehicle and a tank," he said. "We wanted to have fun with it and show people the layers of stickers they can use. We have two amazing graphic and industrial designers on staff. It's exciting!

"We're going after the companies who are big on image and people who want to change the color of their Ferraris without repainting them," he continued. "3M has 27 colors of wraps you can do that with." Avery, too, has a new opaque-film product line available in 33 colors that provides a finish similar to paint. Its dual-layer Supreme Wrapping Film gloss, matte, and metallic textures were first shown at last fall's SGIA show in New Orleans. Avery's Roba perhaps summed it up best for wrap printers and their customers, when he said, "You have to promote your business to grow your business."

3M's Boxeth added that there are numerous product advancements and improvements that make installation and the "personalization of vehicles" easier. "Water and dirt collection posed challenges for perforated window films," Boxeth noted, "but now full-adhesion contact is a reality." He also cited the example of 3M's patented film technology, which includes a bubble-free air release system as well as improved slidability and repositionability. "The media floats on the vehicle's surface," Boxeth explained. "Adhesion doesn't take place until a squeegee is [firmly] pressed on to it." Plus, it "snaps up" for easy movement.

Fry Fabrications may add a flatbed printer within the next year or so. "It would cut down on installation time in our retail division because we could print directly on metal substrates," Fry said.

Install Base

Paul Roba, North American technical manager for Avery Dennison Graphics' reflective solutions, offered this advice for print firms thinking about adding vehicle graphics to their service menu: "You need a sales person to sell the program," Roba said. "You also need a designer to create wrap designs that make sense and space for installation." And, of course, you need to be able to print and laminate in wide formats. But hardware and consumables aside, installation expertise is what you really need to play in this game.

Independent contractor arrangements seem to work best for most vehicle graphics printers. You might be based in Ohio, for example, but you landed a wrap job in California ... "If you wrap more than five cars a month, you may want to consider bringing an installer on board full-time, someone who also can work on architecture or POP work," Roba suggested.

Watching the best of the best compete at trade shows can be fun. Most recently, some of the world's leading installers raced against each other at the Graphics of the Americas/FESPA show in March, where the Vehicle Wrap Center was sponsored by Arlon and Mutoh. At last year's ISA Sign Expo, I interviewed Mingo Richter after his precise and speedy victory at the ISA Sign Expo's American Wrap Star Competition. The cool part is, you can hire guys like these as independent sub-contractors. Individuals and companies can locate Avery Dennison Car Wrap Certified installers around the US at PDAA (Professional Decal Application Association) certified installers can be found through SGIA:

How It's Done

Form-fitting templates are used to design car/bus/truck wraps, shaping them around the entire vehicle. A wrap often needs to be divided into a number of smaller pieces to appropriately cover any movable panels on the vehicle, such as doors, fuel tank cover and trunk openings. The finishing side of the fleet graphics process is tightly integrated to the creative and printing processes. These usually are electronically linked and, when possible, drive digital cutters to slice precisely tailored components for vehicle wraps from the printed material. The process typically begins with a digital template. The Digital Auto Library in Greely, Ontario, stores more than 40,000 such templates for just about every car sold in North America. Once the job is printed and laminated, a companion file can drive a digital trimming device to create the component elements for a wrap, although not all projects go this route. Regardless, some parts of the application will require hand cutting—a task relegated to an installer.