Tag Billboards

Sometimes even the big boys get it wrong

I was driving in Houston after paying a visit to one of my vendors, when this billboard caught my eye:

Yellow Pages billboard, almost all one color

Difficult to read? Imagine trying to read this as you speed past in a car.

Now, I look at billboards all the time; I like to know what the trends are in advertising and a great ad is something I can appreciate. But this caught my eye for all the wrong reasons. While driving past at 60 mph, I couldn’t tell what it was or who it was for.

As I’ve said before in The Art of the Billboard, bulletins like this need to be understood in 5 seconds or less. There is a reason successful billboards use high-contrast colors, they are easier to read at a distance or while zooming by in a car. If people can’t make out what is on the billboard, as in this case where the words blend in with the background, then no one is getting your message. If no one is getting your message, what is the point in paying for a billboard?

Your message needs to be tailored to its medium. Yellow Pages is in the advertising business, but they obviously don’t know billboards.

Don’t be afraid to get some help or advice before you make an investment in your advertising. It may keep you from wasting a lot of money.

Doing it right

Since the last post showcased an ad that didn’t quite send the right message, I thought I’d show and example of a local business that seems to be on the right track as far as their advertising goes.

A few months ago I started noticing some billboards going up for a local chiropractic clinic. (Full disclosure: they are not a client, and I have never talked with them about their advertising.)

SandStone Chiropractic Billboard

It’s a nice bulletin and you can clearly read it from a distance. Other than the phone number and location, it’s is almost as if they followed The Art of the Billboard to a tee. I like it when someone does something right, so even though they are not a client I got a feeling of satisfaction from knowing that someone else “got it.”

I was even more pleased when I drove past their location one Sunday and saw their sign out front.

SandStone exterior sign

They actually use their logo on their storefront sign! You would be surprised at how many small businesses don’t do that. This practitioner’s identity is further reinforced by the use of color; the color of the storefront lettering is similar to the billboard’s background color. Maybe they’ve read Who Are You?

Then one day I am thumbing through a magazine to verify that a client’s ad had ran correctly, and what do I find? You guessed it, an ad for SandStone Chiropractic.

SandStone Magazine Ad

I was thrilled. Not only does the ad look good, I immediately recognized it as being SandStone Chiropractic and mentally connected it with the billboards and the storefront. That’s one of the things you want to accomplish with your advertising, a coherent identity.

I am a little disappointed with the lettering for the business’s name; it is not the same font used in the billboards or the storefront sign. The art-deco look of the magazine lettering is not nearly as professional looking as the serif font used in the other ads. However, because the visuals are almost identical to the billboards (color scheme, practitioner’s photo), the connection is still made and the ad works.

Interestingly, the lettering appears to be the same font used for the logo icon, which is a stylized SSC. Perhaps this was the original logo and it was changed either for ease of reading or to perhaps give a more professional appearance? It might be interesting to learn how this logo was developed.

Despite the logo/lettering issue with the magazine ad, this appears to be a strong advertising campaign for a local business. I wish them great success!

Mixed messages

I’ve mentioned before that a good advertisement will say one thing and say it well. You have such a short slice of time to communicate your message and you don’t want to muddle things up by trying to say too many things.

With that in mind, it is possible to inadvertently send a mixed or conflicting message through your advertising. This billboard was running a while back near where I live, and illustrates what I mean by a mixed or conflicting message:

BurgerFresh Billboard

I hate to pick on these guys, because they really do serve great hamburgers. But this billboard doesn’t do their product justice.

I love the colors and the logo, but the product shot is a mess. There is nothing “fresh” about it. It looks as if someone dropped the hamburger on the floor, hastily put it back together and snapped a quick picture. While their name and their message attempts to say they have really good, fresh-made hamburgers, their product shot says the hamburgers are thrown together and are unappetizing.

It didn’t need to be this way. They could have hired a professional photographer experienced in product shots, taken the time to really dress up the burger, even hire a food stylist (yes, just like a hair stylist, only for food) so their product would look its absolute best. The results would have been vastly different.

I’m also curious if they took the picture themselves, as the lighting is poor and the colors are washed out. I think they would have been well-served to call in a professional. Based on the design, the graphic artist who did the billboard appears to know what they were doing, but they were hindered by an amateurish photo that communicates a message that is in direct opposition to the one that is supposedly presented.

It takes a lot of skill and hard work to match the look and tone of an ad to its message. Don’t cut any corners. You dress yourself nicely when you want to stand out and make an impression. Why wouldn’t you do the same with your advertising?

Clever advertising

My wife and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary last week. We have some close friends whose anniversary is the day before ours, so the four of us drove up through the Ozarks to Branson, Missouri to observe the occasions and take in some fall colors.

On the way up, we passed a billboard in one of the many towns we drove through. Since I’m in advertising and things like that interest me, my friends pointed it out. It was for a jewelry store and it read:

“We sell wife insurance.”

We  chuckled a bit, and the other couple both said that the ad had gotten their attention. I then turned to the wife and asked her, “Does that ad make you want to buy jewelry from that business?” She immediately said no. I turned to the husband and asked the same thing. He also said that it did not make him want to buy from them. The billboard’s cleverness got their attention, but it did nothing to persuade them to actually go into the store.

Why is that? Because while the ad is clever, it doesn’t strike a chord within its audience. It fails to make a connection.

A lot of small business owners mistake clever advertising for good advertising. Clever might grab your attention, but good advertising not only gets your attention, it awakens something within you and lingers in your mind long after the campaign is over. It does that by touching something within the viewer that they immediately recognize as true.

My question to my friends sparked a short conversation about what makes good advertising and why that particular billboard missed the mark. As we were talking, my friend’s wife brought up a billboard that I had done for one of my clients. Here is the billboard she was talking about:

Jeff's Jewelry Billboard "Show her Love"

The wife actually said that she loved this billboard. And she isn’t the first to tell me that. In fact, someone else had mentioned this same billboard to me a week or two before, saying it was one of their favorites. What’s interesting about that is that this billboard hasn’t been displayed in almost two years. But people still remember it. And talk about it. It strikes a chord within them and they can identify with the message, and they want to do business with that advertiser.

Does your advertising do that?

The Media Plan That Fell Apart

I had a client once that sold furniture. They had two stores in two different cities. They hired me to help them with their advertising soon after they opened their second store.

That second store had a slight problem. It was literally located on the wrong side of town. There was a freeway that ran through town, and most of the economic growth was west of that freeway. To the east of the freeway, businesses were shutting down and moving where the action was.

You know the first rule of real estate? Location, location, location! This store didn’t have it. Very few people drove by their location. That’s a problem. Because few people travelled east of the freeway, the people of that city didn’t know there was a new furniture store in town.

That’s where I came in.

I recommended a two-pronged approach: cable television to show people their product, and billboards to direct people to their store.

They sold really nice furniture, and people needed to see that. People also needed to know that they were not very far away even though they were on “the road less travelled.”

They didn’t have a huge budget, and I was an unknown element to them. So we started off lightly by going in with cable with the understanding that billboards would be added later if they saw results.

And results they got. After about a year, we added billboards to the mix. One billboard in particular was in a great location on the freeway south of town — the majority of residents worked and shopped south of town, so everyone saw that billboard when they drove home on a daily basis.

Then things really started to take off.  Sales were way up. Things were good. Then it happened.

The client was spending a lot on advertising. They needed to because there was no benefit from their lousy location. But still, their other store, located in a different city, didn’t have to spend as much on advertising. Never mind that the other store had a fantastic location.

Anyway, they decided to run a test to see which ads were working and which ads were not. That’s not a bad thing, but they never consulted with me and ended up going about it all wrong.

They decided to ask each customer at the time of purchase one question: “Which ad of ours brought you to our store?”

Note that they didn’t ask where the customer sees their ads.

The problem with their question is that the customer isn’t going to know which ad they responded to. The fact is that the customer is responding to all of the ads they’ve seen from that client. The cable ads convinced them that the quality and selection was worth looking into. The billboards reminded them that the client was close by, just a little east of the freeway.

So how did their customers answer the question? Which ad did they mention?

One billboard overwhelmingly led the poll. You got it: the billboard south of town that everyone had to drive past every single day.

So what did the client do? They cancelled all the rest of their advertising except for that one billboard.

I tried to tell them that their cable and their billboards worked together. They said that most everyone remembered that one billboard, but not their other ads. I reminded them that everyone drove past that billboard on their way to the store, so it was fresh on their minds. But they didn’t listen.

I warned them that their sales would decrease once people were no longer being shown the quality of their selection. The billboard only told people where the selection could be found. They didn’t believe me.

Several months later, the client informed me that their sales were down by an alarming amount. Interestingly, they didn’t want to re-implement their media strategy that had been working, they just wanted to change out their billboard artwork. “We must need something new up there, we don’t seem to be getting the same results we were before.”

The Art of the Billboard

Billboards are great venues for advertising your small business.  Billboards come with built in frequency, one of the three pillars of successful advertising.  People tend to drive the same routes over and over, whether they’re going to work or to the grocery store.  A well-placed billboard will be seen multiple times by a person driving that particular route.  That’s what we call frequency, and it is one of the reasons people usually recall billboard advertising better than other forms of print advertising.

Billboard artwork can be a little tricky to pull off successfully.  You see, in order for any advertisement to be effective, it must be noticed and understood, and this is where many billboards fail.

A billboard is typically seen while driving a car.  You are literally flying past the advertisement at 70 mph, or whatever the speed limit is where a particular billboard is located.  The billboard industry likes to say a person has 8 seconds to read a billboard, but I think it is more like 5 seconds, and even that is under ideal circumstances.  In order for a billboard to be effective, it must be seen and understood in 5 seconds or less!

There are lots of ways to effectively communicate with a billboard in 5 seconds, but there are many more ways to sink that effort.  The three most common ways to make an ineffective billboard are small type, too much information, and low-contrast color schemes.

You’d think that it would be a no-brainer that you need to make the words on a billboard big enough to be seen at a distance, but I commonly see national brands putting up billboards that are difficult to read while driving past them in a car.

Small businesses are usually guilty of the trying to cram too much information onto the billboard.  A lot of times this is some sort of contact information but not always.  When was the last time you wrote down a telephone number you saw on a billboard?  There may be a few who have done it once or twice, but most people have never done it.  Not even once.  And in 5 seconds, you’re certainly not going to memorize that phone number as you drive by in your car.

Any advertisement should only have one message. If the purpose of your billboard is to remind people where you are at, then only put your location and leave out your phone number altogether.  And when you put your location, don’t put your address.  Put something readily identifiable, like the closest street intersection.  Which is a better locator:  “2378 Elm”, or “Near Elm and Polk St.”?

Low-contrast color schemes are the other big billboard killer.  What works for a newspaper or magazine ad, or even a business card, may not work for a billboard.

Billboards are seen at a distance.  It’s not unusual for a billboard to be elevated up 20 feet or more, so even if you are standing right next to the billboard structure, you will still be 20 feet or more away from the ad copy.  The road usually will be even further away.  If the text, pictures and background are not clearly distinguishable from each other, then you won’t be able to read the billboard at a distance, and it will certainly not be understandable in 5 seconds or less.

So if your going to advertise on a billboard, make sure the print is large enough to be read at a distance, there’s not too much information and clutter, and it has a high-contrast color design.  Then you’ll have a good start on having an effective billboard.

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