Specialty vehicle maker Cinema Vehicles decked out two 1973 VW buses with a beach vibe for Vita Coco. The buses were modified so the roof lifts up and the van becomes a bar with a coconut binon top and a wooden bartop inside, where productsamples are served. - Photo courtesy of Cinema Vehicles.

Specialty vehicle maker Cinema Vehicles decked out two 1973 VW buses with a beach vibe for Vita Coco. The buses were modified so the roof lifts up and the van becomes a bar with a coconut bin

on top and a wooden bar

top inside, where product

samples are served.

Photo courtesy of Cinema Vehicles.

Competition is fierce in almost every industry today, and making your company stand out is becoming increasingly difficult. Graphics on fleet vehicles have delivered positive ROI since the invention of the vinyl wrap — but now some businesses have amped up their advertising game by adding 3D elements to their vehicles’ creative graphics treatments. 

Iconic vehicles like the Batmobile and Millennium Falcon instantly recall the movie franchises they represent. Another movie reference comes to mind — the “Zap ‘Em” truck from the 1997 movie Men in Black that Vincent D’Onofrio’s alien character used to get around New York. It was a brightly colored van with a giant cockroach on the roof. Definitely noticeable, and memorable. 

Could this type of instant recognition be applied to fleet vehicles to bring customers into your business? 

Creating a 3D Mole 

Tuff Turf Molebusters owner Jim Zylstra got inspiration for his unique vehicle after seeing Dale’s dead cockroach van on the TV show King of the Hill. Tuff Turf, a lawn care company in Byron Center, MI, provides the Grand Rapids and Metro Detroit areas with lawn care as well as pest control. 

Zylstra had the idea to put a mole on top of his truck in 2005, and by the end of 2006, most of the company’s trucks were outfitted with moles. In 2009, the fleet received a makeover with a bright green and orange color scheme and an updated logo featuring Digger the Mole. Tuff Turf celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2019. 

“I wanted to be different,” Zylsta says. “In my industry, which is lawn fertilizing, everybody has a white truck with green lettering, and that’s exactly what I had, white truck and green lettering with grass graphics on the bottom of the vehicle.” 

At the very first stop after the mole was fitted on the roof of his truck, Zylstra’s production manager says a neighbor noticed the mole, and then asked him for an estimate on services. It has been 10 years since Tuff Turf changed its logo and added the 3D mole, and the company still receives calls from first-time customers because Digger the Mole caught their attention. 

“Most surprising is that still after 10 years of doing it, we are still getting people taking pictures of our trucks as we’re driving down the road. And that is every single trip we make. We cannot run five miles without somebody taking a picture of us,” Zylstra says. “At this point, I thought everybody has seen it by now.” 

The mole is composed of several layers of 2-inch wide polyurethane that are glued together then hand-carved. The moles are then painted with automotive paint, followed by a clear coat. They become hard as a rock and are very durable. The moles may need some touch-up after a few years on the road, but some of the moles are more than eight years old and still in great condition, Zylstra says. 

Wrapped in a Hawaiian beach theme, the custom-built Tikiz truck is decked out with traditional surfboard signage and décor. Each unit is based off a heavy-duty Ford truck platform and are built with several custom components. - Photo courtesy of Tikiz.

Wrapped in a Hawaiian beach theme, the custom-built Tikiz truck is decked out with traditional surfboard signage and décor. Each unit is based off a heavy-duty Ford truck platform and are built with several custom components.

Photo courtesy of Tikiz.

These moles cost $1,800 each to produce; however, Zylstra says, “that is still pretty cheap advertising.” The moles take two weeks to fabricate and a day to install.  

From Wraps to 3D 

While 3D features may leave a lasting impression, they may not be feasible for all businesses. Colorful vehicle wraps can still stand out just as much, with the right design. “A vehicle wrap can do a lot more than people think,” says Shawn Grogan, director of Corporate/Experiential Vehicles at Cinema Vehicles in Hollywood, Calif. “Vehicle wraps are a mobile billboard for your business. If they have four wheels and can roll, they are going to turn heads.” 

Cinema Vehicles is a family-run business that provides rentals and specialty custom-made vehicles for movie studios including Disney and Marvel, as well as movie franchises such as Austin Powers and The Fast and The Furious. Cinema Vehicles also has a full fabrication and design department capable of creating and building custom vehicles, as well as a full-service graphics department with the latest in graphics technology that can customize any vehicle. 

“We take a standard vehicle and try to make it as unique as possible,” Grogan says. “Customers will come to us and say, ‘We want to do something cool,’ and they may or may not have their own idea. We can then help them create a concept or take their idea and bring it to fruition.” 

Vita Coco, a coconut water maker, came to Cinema Vehicles and asked for a beach vibe vehicle to represent its tropical brand. Cinema Vehicles purchased two 1973 VW buses and replaced the air-cooled engines with water-cooled engines. It then modified the bus so the roof lifted up and the van became a bar with a coconut bin on top and a wooden bar top inside, where product samples were served. The van was then wrapped in a custom vinyl wrap to complete the beach vibe.  

According to Grogan, vinyl wraps can be completed relatively quickly. Once they have the design, the vinyl can be printed in about two hours, and depending on the vehicle, installed in six to eight hours. “Vehicle wraps are the easiest way create a custom design, but they don't give you that 3D effect.” 

Design, fabrication and installation of a typical custom vehicle wrap can range between $2,500 and $5,000 per vehicle. Costs will differ from vehicle to vehicle, depending on whether it is a partial wrap or full wrap, and on the size of the vehicle. 

Custom builds, on the other hand, can take months to create. Three-dimensional items can be a relatively small investment, like the Tuff Turf moles, or can cost upwards of $6,000 per vehicle, plus installation.  

Grogan recommends being smart about your spend, especially if you are a small business. “You need to find the right partner, because a lot of people will just sell you and then try to upsell you,” he says. “Find an honest partner who will work within your budget, and not try to upsell you or try to charge you for every little thing.” 

“I would definitely do research on a vendor before you choose to do something this expensive,” says Zylstra. “It’s got to be their area of expertise, not just somebody who says, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it, and maybe I’ll see if I can build something.’” 

Understand Liabilities 

Tikiz Shaved Ice and Ice Cream, a franchise based in Boca Raton, FL, hit the market in 2012 with its unique food trucks that vend shaved ice with a choice of 10 mix-and-match flavored syrups that customers can add themselves. They also sell ice cream novelties. 

Gold’n Plump Poultry, based in Greely, Colo., uses the Chik’n Cruiser at various events, usually with a mobile kitchen in tow, to hand out samples. The company’s mascot “Cooper” straddles the one-ton cargo van. - Photo courtesy of Gold'n Plump.

Gold’n Plump Poultry, based in Greely, Colo., uses the Chik’n Cruiser at various events, usually with a mobile kitchen in tow, to hand out samples. The company’s mascot “Cooper” straddles the one-ton cargo van.

Photo courtesy of Gold'n Plump.

The Tikiz truck was inspired by the nostalgia of the classic ice cream truck, but the company wanted to bring it to the next level by serving a new favorite — shaved ice — alongside classic ice cream novelties.  

The Tikiz trucks were designed from the ground up. Each unit is based off a heavy-duty Ford truck platform and are built with several custom components. For example, the self-contained water system and high-output batteries allow operators to produce more than 400 shaved ice servings per hour and eliminate the need for noisy generators — allowing the guests to enjoy the tropical steel drum music from external speakers. 

Throughout the Tikiz truck’s conceptual development, no limits were placed on the custom components and features that would ensure its ultimate appeal to customers. Some features include a highly visible Hawaiian beach-themed vehicle wrap, custom surfboard signage, custom headlight bulbs, siren-style LED strobe lights and neon ground effects. 

“If you are a small company, don’t go over the top and make huge modifications to a vehicle. If that vehicle is involved in an accident, those modifications are going to cost twice as much to fix and may not be covered by your insurance,” Grogan says. Be sure to discuss any vehicle modifications with your insurance company to make sure you are properly covered. 

Zylstra offers advice if you are considering adding a unique marketing gimmick to your vehicle. “My advice is to go all the way into it. Don’t just try to attempt to do something; take a vehicle and just go and be different. 

“It used to be that I just wanted people to see the vehicle and get the phone number, Zylstra adds. “Nowadays they want to take a picture and they turn around and immediately post it on social media. Another unexpected benefit is that I am constantly getting on people’s social media.” 

For Tuff Turf, a little spark of an idea has brought in new customers with a unique creature on its truck roofs — and 10 years later it is still creating interest in the business. With a little creativity, your vehicles can do a lot of marketing work for you too. 

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