You’ve seen the VW Beetles, Hummers and transit buses driving around town with the local radio station, sports team or latest blockbuster plastered all over them. It’s a far cry from your humble business logo and phone number on the side of your delivery vans, isn’t it? Not anymore.

Small businesses are looking to non-traditional ways to squeeze the most out of their advertising dollar. “The old way of thinking is, ‘All I need to do is put our name and phone number on our vehicles and let the salespeople and brochures take care of the rest,’” says Jared Smith, president of Blue Media, a graphics company in Tempe, Ariz., that specializes in vehicle wraps. “If a fleet is done right the phone will ring.”

The medium is called vinyl wrapping. Fortune 500 companies use it on their fleets to reinforce existing brand images. As a small business owner, you probably don’t have the ad budget to merely support your logo. So when deciding whether to “go big” on your fleet vehicles, ask yourself if your idea has legs—will it get people talking after that initial impression is made? Figures for cost-per-impression vary widely, depending on type of route and number of miles your fleet travels.

According to a study commissioned by the Traffic Audit Bureau in 1999, an ad-wrapped panel truck driving in metro traffic delivers about 30,000 impressions daily. That makes the marriage of a company vehicle and a clever idea an especially potent marketing tool. In effect, you’re extending traditional word-of-mouth advertising to your fleet.

Permanent Yet Removable

Companies have been promoting themselves on vehicles since horses were powering them. About 30 years ago vinyl graphics replaced paint as the preferred application. Simple decals and lettering made from cut vinyl are still the most prevalent type of vehicle graphic. In 1993 3M paved the way for full vehicle wraps with the development of a vinyl adhesive that is printer-compatible and weatherproof.

“The only reason this industry exists in the first place because 3M and some other companies found a way to create a permanent yet removable vinyl,” says Smith. Permanent means today’s vinyl wraps will survive carwashes and harsh elements. Removable means the wrap can be removed, up to five years after application, without damaging the vehicle’s paint. After 3M, Avery is the second largest player in the market. Other manufacturers include Arlon, MACtac and VIP.

The Three Components

There are three main components that compose a full vehicle wrap: laminated, adhesive-backed vinyl applied everywhere but the windows, perforated vinyl to cover the windows and cut vinyl used for spot lettering and graphics. The perforated vinyl shows a seamless print on the outside, though from the inside it looks like window tint. Cut vinyl can add smaller elements onto the wrap design, such as a phone number, Website or sponsor. If those elements should change, the cut vinyl pieces can be removed easily so the whole car doesn’t need to be re-wrapped.

Quote Me On That

The process begins with a meeting between you and the graphics company to come up with an estimate. The estimate is based on the type of materials, type and size of vehicle, square footage to be covered and number of vehicles to wrap. All estimates should be itemized. The first cost incurred is the design fee. That fee should estimate the number of hours it will take to complete the design. Cost for materials and cost to install are both priced by the square foot. The install price is based on the size of the vehicle and its complexity. For instance, the price per-square-foot for a Volkswagen Beetle will be about double the price for a box truck because of the contours on the Beetle.

$$$$$$$$$

As a benchmark, Blue Media’s design fee for full wraps ranges from $600 to $1000, based on design time only. Blue Media uses 3M materials exclusively. ControlTac, the 3M film used on everything but the windows, costs from $6 to $8.50 per square foot. 3M window perf will run from $11 to $15. Blue Media’s install price per square foot ranges from $1 to $4 dollars. Smith says the cheapest vehicle graphics out the door—say, logos on the doors and a Web site on the tailgate—will run from $300 to $500 total per vehicle. The average box truck will cost between $3,000 and $8,000 for a full wrap. The most expensive single-vehicle job the company handled, an RV and trailer, totaled about $15,000.

A cost that can be easily overlooked is the charge to remove the wrap. Ease of removal depends on the quality of the vinyl and the amount of time the wrap has been left on. Truxign, a vehicle graphics company in Southern California, charges $75 an hour. General Manager Rolando Rodriguez estimates four to five hours to remove graphics from a van wrapped in 3M film under warranty. Blue Media charges $45 an hour. Smith says a vehicle wrapped for a week may take only 20 minutes to remove. An average van still under warranty can be unwrapped for $90 to $200.

Your Creative Vision

After you’re satisfied with the estimate, the process begins with a meeting between you and the designers at the graphics company to come up with a creative direction for the wrap. You supply them with your company logo, branding and slogans. The graphics company will then measure your vehicle and take photos of it. Companies now have the ability to mock-up a design on a computerized image of your vehicle for a fairly realistic representation of the final product. Smith says one client saw the computer mockup and complained he hadn’t yet approved his vehicle to be wrapped. After you approve the mock-up you’ll need to schedule the install. The biggest trick with fleets, says Smith, is rotating the vehicles out of service and into the graphics shop. Blue Media can turn around a vehicle brought in at 8 a.m. by 4 or 5 p.m. the same day.

Cost-Per-Impression? Priceless

“I’ve been sitting on that idea for two or three years,” says Paul Verge, owner of Aim Electrical & Plumbing Services in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Verge brought the original idea to Mel Malana, manager and designer at Pulse Signs & Design, Inc. of Dartmouth. Malana told Verge to shoot various photos of himself on a toilet. Malana then designed, produced and installed the vinyl decals on the vehicle.

After the job was finished Verge emailed the photo to a few friends. The day after he got thirty calls to his office, all from the United States. The photo has since made its way across the world via the Internet, taking word-of-mouth advertising into the stratosphere. “I wanted to create a buzz,” he says, “but this is just nuts.” Malana charged $250 per vehicle side and $85 for installation. Can you even calculate the cost-per-impression? Verge is philosophical about his fifteen minutes of fame. “In this world we live in, if I can spread a little bit of joy, it’s worth it,” he says.

Choosing the Right Company: 7 Questions You Need Answered

After you’ve got a list of companies to call, Smith has this advice for narrowing your choices:

Can you dazzle me?

Every company takes pictures of almost every vehicle they wrap. When you ask for a portfolio, you should be flooded with photos of jobs relevant to your own.

Are you a wrap star?

Look at the level of clientele the company services. If the company has clients like Pizza Hut and Foot Locker it’s a good bet they’re getting it right. And don’t be scared off because you’re not one of the Fortune 500. Bigger, more established graphics companies offer competitive prices because of their efficiencies of scale and their volume purchasing power.

Can you give me references?

Look at the company’s photo portfolio and call a couple of clients. Ask them about their experience.

What materials do you use?

The type of job and length of application dictates the type and quality of vinyl. Cheaper materials should only be considered for temporary graphics (i.e. a time-sensitive promotion) or for a simple logo and lettering job. For full vehicle wraps and jobs that require digital media, Smith recommends 3M only. Rodriquez recommends 3M or Avery.

Am I being outsourced?

Many smaller companies as well as national print shop chains offer vehicle wrapping, though they only act as a storefront to another company doing all the work. The price will be marked up, and your vision will be communicated through a second party. Remember the game “telephone?” Instructions can get bungled on the other end.

Do you take it off?

Not all companies that install vinyl graphics remove them. This is where materials matter: the cheaper the vinyl, the longer it will take to remove it. Rodriguez and Smith have a few stories of vinyl graphics left on long past warranty. Those graphics needed to be sanded off and the vehicles repainted—at great cost to the client.

What do I get for my warranty?

The integrity of the vehicle wrap is built on the manufacturer’s warranty. Companies must go through a rigorous certification process to be able to offer a 3M or Avery warranty. They must have what’s called the component matching system, meaning certified installers must use manufacturer-approved ink applied to manufacturer’s vinyl and laminate. The vinyl sheets can only be printed out on manufacturer-authorized printers.

The warranty is based on the amount of time the vinyl can remain on the vehicle until it starts damaging the factory-applied paint. Beware: warranties do not cover cheap aftermarket paintjobs, which can be damaged by the vinyl. 3M’s warranty only covers surfaces within plus or minus 10 degrees of vertical. That means horizontal surfaces—the hood, roof, trunk and fenders on most passenger vehicles—are not covered. The sun hits those surfaces at a more direct angle, which will crack and fade the vinyl sooner. Hoods are especially problematic because of the heat the engine generates.

Ask for the warranty up front. Be wary of a company offering its own warranty—it’s often because it isn’t certified to offer one from the manufacturer. Go to 3M’s Web site, www.scotchprint.com, and look up warranty information to see if your warranty matches the one the printing company gives you. 3M and Avery’s warranties last for five to seven years (in Arizona three years due to the heat). Smith’s summation: “If the shop has a good portfolio, has been doing it a long time and can offer you a 3M warranty, you’re at the right spot.”

Makes Getting There All the Fun

The wrap cost $8000—more than the limo itself—but the idea put Sugar Daddy’s Blues Club on the map of the local bar and restaurant scene in Phoenix. People drive by and stop to take pictures of the limo daily, says John Radice, director of operations for Sugar Daddy’s. At night, the limo shuttles partiers to and from the bar for free. “The shock value of pulling up in this is definitely something people don’t forget,” Radice says. Blue Media of Tempe, Ariz. wrapped the vehicle and won an International Best of Show award with it.

Put Your Money Where Your Wheels Are

Jeff Kaiser, president and CEO of Same Day Signs in Houston, figured that since his company specializes in large-format graphics he should “put his money where his wheels are.” In 2001 Kaiser went looking for ways to cut his $100,000 Yellow Pages budget. He came up with this business plan: he signed three-year, closed-end leases on seven VW Beetles at $287 per month (they lease for even less today, he says). He wrapped them in his company’s signature green reptile patterns. Employees pay $150 per month to use them as personal vehicles, and Kaiser picks up the extra $100 in insurance. He writes the whole thing off as advertising. Kaiser says he made sales in the first year to pay for the entire program for three years. Kaiser parks the Beetles in a row outside the office, and once a month his employees drive them around the city in a caravan. People have stopped employees in the vehicles at gas stations to take pictures. The effect has created a larger-than-life image for the company. “We’ve become branded without even trying,” he says. “It’s a mini-celebrity thing.”

Who You Gonna Call?

The Professional Vehicle Decal Application Association (PDAA) is an excellent resource for certified vinyl graphics installers. Visit www.pdaa.com and click on “Find Certified Installers” for a list of PDAA members by state. Or try www.signindustry.com. Type “vehicle graphics” into the Web site directory’s search engine, or input the first three digits of your zip code to find graphics companies in your area. Or go to www.signsearch.com and look up fleet or vehicle graphics and narrow your search by zip code.

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