Creating advertising and event banners large enough to cover the façade of a building is a market that can’t be ignored.
By Lou Dzierzak
At the 2000 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, more than a dozen buildings were decorated with super-sized banners celebrating the competition. Since then, sports related venues and events have been a major customer for building wraps.
Visual Impact in Blaine, Minn. was hired by the National Hockey League to create printed graphic panels for the 55th annual All-Star game. Mike Cofrin, director of sales and marketing, reports, “We were awarded the project in late November and art started to arrive after Christmas. From December 28th until late January we were running non-stop.”
By the week of the All-Star game, Visual Impact produced 1,100 different pieces and 400 unique designs for the NHL. Operating additional shifts and paying lots of overtime, the 15-year-old company printed more than 105,000 square feet of vinyl and mesh at its 28,720 square foot production facility. Three 120-foot wide by 70-foot tall archways decorated the entrances of the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. The largest panels were constructed with mesh that allowed 70 percent of the air to move through to avoid creating stress on the structure.
A project as visible as an All-Star game adds just a little more pressure to perform. Visual Impact has been wrapping buildings since the late 90s and understands what it takes to win major bids. “We evolved into the business. We knew we had the capabilities to put us in the game. We always out there bidding on this time of work and you get a percentage of it and it hits,” reports Cofrin.
Winning bids require more than competitive pricing. “It all starts on the print shop floor with maintaining quality control with colors and quality of print. We win our business from the operations side. We have more capacity than most printers out there. Mixing capacity with high quality is a pretty potent combination when it comes to major projects like the NHL. Past projects open new opportunities with bowl games, major sporting facilities, and events. It sends us down an interesting path,” Cofrin says.
In 2006, American Century Investments launched an advertis-ing campaign that featured seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. The advertising’s tagline read “Put Your Lance Face On.” American Century followed that advice literally. The south tower of the company’s Kansas City headquarters featured a gigantic 61-foot tall image of Armstrong.
Commerce Color of St. Louis, created the 102-foot tall and 70-foot wide banner. Installers used 86 lag bolts along the building’s top, sides, and bottom to anchor the material. Once anchored, installers worked for two and one-half hours to unfurl the banner to its full dimensions. To keep the gigantic eight-story tall, 480 pound, banner hanging straight, 34 fiberglass rods that were 10 feet long and 6 and one-half inches in diameter were placed into pockets on the banner’s edges.
As dramatic as the banner was to the residents of Kansas City, it was just another job well done for Commerce Color. Wrapping buildings in advertising messages has become a very hot market.
Creating the wrap
Tom Croghan, vice president of sales and marketing for Commerce Color describes the sales growth his company has experienced. “There is a strong revitalization process going on in downtown St. Louis. One hundred-year-old warehouses are being converted into modern apartments and loft condominiums. That was one of the things that pushed us into the wallscape niche. There was a big demand for it. It has literally exploded.”
The burgeoning interest isn’t limited to building owners in the one part of the country. Bruce Dickinson, vice president of sales at Rainier Industries in Seattle, Wash. sees a similar trend. “The growth has been steady. As architects, designers, and agencies get more familiar with the capabilities, they are pushing the envelope.”
Recent advancements in digital printers and other equipment have made it possible to create these huge canvases. Cofrin explains, “There are some unique tools, like equipment that fuses fabrics together that doesn’t involve sewing. The ability to print it, combine it, and more importantly engineer it correctly so that it hangs effectively—that’s what really makes it possible for big projects like this.”
Commerce Color uses experi-ence gained producing billboards to create building wraps. “The equipment we use to print wall-scapes is the same we used to print billboards. We pay special attention to color management. With our background with color separations, we are very clued in to how color should and does work on these large format meshes,” offers Croghan.
Printing oversized panels certainly requires a high degree of knowledge and experience. Dickinson describes how Rainier approaches an assignment. “Printing the image on a 16-foot printer with digital images on heavy-duty mesh materials is really the easy part. We do take that and add some reinforcing to address the winds and weather the panels may face.”
And installing it
Installation offers a greater challenge. Dickinson says, “Technically you have to start with a good survey of the actual project and the specific location. What is the structure made of and what do I have to attach to. We’ve been doing this for a while so we’ve perfected a few different systems.”
Quality control and consistency can be maintained within a shop’s environment, but each new project requires a unique understanding of the structural engineering and construction. Cofrin agrees, “Every building is different. The age of the building has an effect. Whether you are working with glass or brick or hanging it from the ceiling versus a different part of the building. No two jobs are alike. We’re faced with new challenges with every building we face. There’s always a lot of homework involved. If you are in the game for a project of this magnitude you really have to get on top of the building to see what’s happening.”
Croghan reinforces that point of view. “Installation can be very tricky. We have experience with traditional billboard installers who have shifted some of their focus to the wallscape business. We are very specific in our recommendations in hanging wallscapes. If they are installed poorly or inadequately and allow wind to get under them at all, they have a tendency to fall down, which is not a good thing at all. We are very tuned in to the ways our preferred installers use. A very important aspect of being in the wallscape business is having exposure to the expertise on how to install them. We get requests from all over the country for wallscape printing and we go to great lengths to resource a qualified installer. We don’t want them to fall or tear.”
In addition to meeting the project requirements of the customer, printers and installers need to understand the ordinances and regulations that govern the building they are working on. Dickinson puts it this way, “At the end of the day we have to satisfy the inspectors. When you start putting large fabrics on the side of a building they have to stay there. We can do anything and attach it to anything. The challenge is meeting the satisfaction of the local building officials. While regulations differ from city to city there hasn’t been a major problem.”
The importance of client service
By design, building wraps are created to start a buzz about a company’s products or services. Making sure that buzz is positive requires a strong working relationship between printer and client.
Cofrin says, “A lot of things have to happen. You have to establish a high level of trust. What you are about to pull off with the person you are working with will be very visible to everyone in the organization. It has to work. You have to have a firm understanding of the job and the client needs to understand every challenge you face from a production or installation perspective. It’s a high level collaborative process where we take their interests and desires and convert them into a new look for a building on a temporary basis.”
Depending on the sophistication of the customer, building wrap printers can serve as strategic partners or simply production vendors. Cofrin describes Visual Impact’s approach. “We will offer recommendations, but ultimately it’s their decision. We’re more concerned about whether or not the design will function on the building and secondly will it meet the visual objectives they’ve established.”
Croghan says Commerce Color often addresses clients concerns about the choice of materials and colors. “We will make recommendations on whether they should use mesh or vinyl. When you are printing on mesh, color is more of an issue. You want to make sure that color is as vibrant as you can get because you can see through it. But it has a natural tendency for the color to fade. On straight vinyl, the color saturation is full. The problem with vinyl is that it exasperates the sail effect. Once you get to a certain size you really can’t do certain things on straight vinyl.”
In most cases, the messages printed on the building wrap wear out long before the banner fabrics. “We’ve had them up for a year. The lifecycle doesn’t depend on the integrity of the material or printing, it’s more about the content. If it is a construction contractor it might be up for three to six months to generate interest in the project,” explains Croghan.
Dickinson agrees, “In most cases the life span is a year or two maximum. The images have a shelf life in terms of the promotion. Right now the longevity of the fabrics are good. The biggest issue is the longevity of the ink that can fade. The hardware will last forever.”
Prospects for growth
The market for building wraps or wallscapes is certain to grow. Business will come from advertising and promotion agencies, construction companies, developers, and other sign companies. Building owners are now willing to sell their physical space to marketers. Referrals also play an important role.
With opportunity comes competition. Cofrin recommends carefully evaluating your capabilities before taking the leap. “I don’t think you can just get in the game because you want to do it. You have to have the equipment and expertise to pull it off. It’s not an easy market to enter. It certainly has its barriers to entry.”
Commerce Color will continue to ride the boom in St. Louis and use those case studies to market services to other parts of the country.
“We were in the right place at the right time for local work, which has given us a great deal of experience and expertise in this area. We get a lot of phone calls from people who want to put something up on a building but they have no idea what to do. We work with them to help them get things pulled together. There’s a process you have to follow to get them up and get them up right. It’s our experience that brings people to us,” Croghan says.
The tools are in place. Digital printers, mesh materials, and existing inks can live up to the wildest graphic images a marketing manager can conjure up.
Limitations in growth, if any, will come from the designer’s ability to create effective communications tools. Croghan offers these final thoughts. “The art directors have to make decisions about the design in terms of how far the audience is away. It’s up to them to make the design work for all the people taking it in. The ones with a single powerful message make the most impact.”