Graphics: Paint Your Wagons

In the grocery business, a two-per-cent return on sales is considered a bounty of a margin. To earn it, supermarkets turn to a three-step recipe of cost control.

They hold down the cost of goods by buying things in large volumes straight from the producer or factory. They rein in marketing expenses by attracting regular customers who spend almost their entire food budget at one store. And they cut their labour costs by getting shoppers to pick and build their own orders and use their own transportation to haul them home.

So it’s natural that when Don Hunter and his colleagues in the logistics group of Loblaw Companies Ltd. started exploring the idea of installing billboard-sized vinyl graphics on the sides of nearly three-dozen new 53-ft. trailers, the priorities were price, price, and price.

“If you’re looking for companies that say they can hang graphics on your trucks or trailers, you don’t have to look very far,” says Hunter. “They find you. It’s a small world and a very competitive market.”

The decision to use graphics that consume both sides of the trailers involved a variety of expertise and opinions within the company: the marketing department to develop and target the message, the graphic artists to produce the creative material, and the logistics group to make the choice of which company should handle the printing and installation on the rolling stock.

“We started out looking at price as the primary consideration,” Hunter notes, “but ultimately, we wanted a quality job.” That includes help selecting the most appropriate vinyl film for the trailer, accurate colour reproduction, a speedy application to reduce downtime, and the assurance that the graphics installer — or “converter,” in industry parlance — will stand behind its work for years to come.

It comes down to the idea that trailers in the Loblaw fleet don’t just take products to the supermarket, Hunter says. The way they look reinforces or betrays the company’s carefully honed marketing and advertising messages aimed at folks driving around trying to remember about how much milk is in the fridge.

Simply put, he says, “If you see a junky looking trailer, you wonder about the food inside of it. That’s not the impression we want to make with people or the way we operate.” Trailers don’t just carry goods to Loblaw stores. They carry the Loblaw corporate identity. Precious cargo.

Whether you manage a private fleet or a for-hire carrier, if you’re thinking about incorporating your equipment into your marketing mix you’re probably at a pivotal point in your company’s development.

Now’s a good time to consider your options. Suppliers of vinyl films, adhesives, and the computer-controlled ink-jet-style plotters used to create large-scale commercial vehicle graphics have made their products significantly easier to apply, remove, and see. The qualities of the material are helping to cut costs and downtime while inspiring new creative approaches at the same time.

“How else would you explain a motor coach that’s wrapped in colour graphics promoting a great place to ski in the winter, and then spring comes and within a day the graphics are changed to show off the same place as a golf resort?” says Simon Bois, sales director with Turbo Images, the Saint-Georges, Que., company Loblaw ultimately chose to provide the graphics for its new trailers.

Fleet graphics have evolved from a paint-bucket-and-brush approach to strategically cut and placed decals to digital images on vinyl films designed specifically for trucks, trailers, and other commercial transportation equipment. Two companies provide the biggest array of films and adhesives: Avery Dennison Graphics Division North America and 3M Commercial Graphics. Most films used on trucks and trailers are only 2 millimeters thick and come in panels that are 48 to 60 inches wide.

“The type of surface, the dimensions, how frequently you might change the graphics, the turnaround time for installation, whether you need reflective vinyl — once you’ve weighed your options, the choice of film settles itself,” says Bois.

Some of the biggest advancements have come in reflective graphics, which ensure that motorists can see your message around the clock. They can also significantly reduce the risks of collision. 3M and Avery Dennison both offer film with millions of tiny glass beads embedded in the surface coating that capture light and reflect back to its source.

“When companies choose to use full-scale trailer graphics, the images are vibrant in the daylight but disappear at night,” says Bois, whose company, Turbo-Images, teamed with Avery Dennison to develop a reflective coating called Neon Graphik, which promises nighttime visibility from nearly 2,000 feet away.


If you have a concept that translates well to a 48- or 53-foot-wide canvas, here are some tips you can use to increase your exposure and make a lasting impression through vehicle graphics:

Warranty and maintenance. Graphics are a component on the trailer, one that requires little maintenance but occasional fixes. 3M and Avery Dennison warrant their products for at least seven years, more when you use a certified installer. Ask how your graphics supplier will handle repairs. They should be able to quickly reproduce a replacement panel and electronically age the image to match any fading that has occurred.

Making changes. Removing graphics from your equipment can leave a lasting impression on your OE paint. Adhesive residue or faded paint can reveal where the old markings were. Changeable graphic films use an adhesive that doesn’t require heat, tools, or solvents to remove. The film usually comes off the trailer in large pieces, leaving behind little or no adhesive residue. That’s important for two reasons: “de-identification” of old equipment important for image and liability reasons, as well as resale value.

Avoid vendors who outsource. It helps to know the capabilities of your vendor before you ask for a bid. It’s convenient, but rarely cost effective, to have vendors outsource design work or installation, as they regularly mark up fees.

Drop in. Visit your prospective graphic supplier. You can see the equipment in action, but more important you can see the people. A quality installation job rests in the hands of the crew. It’s up to you to understand the terms and conditions set by each individual graphics installer for such critical possibilities as delays, errors, lost or corrupt electronic files, and more.

Price is an important aspect of every print job, but there’s no substitute for quality, value, and dependability. We’d like to think that these desirable results come from our design acumen, but just as often they are negotiated in the fine print of that contract we love to ignore.

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