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Outdoor signage goes high-tech

Feature, Graphics | November 1, 2010 | By:

New opportunities in billboards and building wraps combine specialty fabrics with dazzling digital effects.

Outdoor advertising is big business. In 2009, advertisers spent $5.9 billion on signage—and more than $3.8 billion of that was on billboards alone. As businesses seek new opportunities to make their brands stand out, the sign industry is meeting the need with high-tech options that integrate specialty fabrics with new technologies such as LED display and solar power. But PVC (or its eco-friendly fabric counterparts) is not going away. Signage fabricators and printers can successfully combine traditional print media with electronics to help their customers make a statement.

Delivering a message

The incorporation of technology into static billboards is nothing new. In fact, elements such as neon, chasing lights and smoke machines have evolved over decades, says Tony Alwin, senior vice president, creative, marketing and public relations for Clear Channel Outdoor in Phoenix, Ariz. In the early 1990s, print billboards became equipped with changeable copy units that used lights inside a contained box to display messages that could be changed by a computer. These light boxes would later be replaced by LED units.

“As soon as LED technology evolved to outdoor use, outdoor companies began to use it on billboards for parts of the message that needed to change often,” Alwin says. “The billboard designs were planned ahead of time to include a changeable message area, and that way information could be constantly updated without the need to reprint the vinyl.” Examples of these “hybrid” signs created by Clear Channel include a mortgage company sharing its interest rates, emergency rooms showing wait times, and lottery groups listing jackpots and winning numbers.

Adding a digital display to traditional billboards is a rather simple process, says Mendi LeBlanc, creative director for Lamar Advertising Co. in Baton Rouge, La. “The electronic message center can be put right on top of the creative, or the graphics can be designed around it,” she explains. “It’s not difficult because you just leave a blank area for the amount of space that you need for the message center. A lot of times these message centers are placed above the board so you are not taking up any of your real estate that you want to use creatively.”

Lamar has used these dual vinyl/electronics billboards in a variety of markets. For instance, hospitals have used a static billboard for the branding aspect and an electronic message center to announce new births. Similar outdoor signage has been put into place for hybrid billboards near airports that display arrival and departure times, as well as delays.

Integrating video

In June 2010, CBS Outdoor took the hybrid sign concept to the next level by incorporating video with outdoor vinyl posters, called video two-sheets. The goal for the project, which promoted the third-season premiere of the HBO show “True Blood” at New York’s Times Square subway station, was to integrate a digital experience into a print piece, says Matt Fine, president of Engagement Media LLC in Montclair, N.J., the company tasked with devising the technology to make the project happen. Meanwhile, Standout Graphics in North Hollywood, Calif., created and printed the two-sheets.

For the creation of the project, a specialized mounting system fit into a frame where the poster would normally go. Engagement Media then embedded a self-contained unit that went into the backboard frame. The vinyl signs were placed on top of a plastic covering, which was raised to accommodate the video. The end result: an ultra-thin 10-inch LCD screen with audio that played a preview of “True Blood’s” new season. Though the campaign only lasted a month, it made a big impact on the hundreds of thousands of viewers who passed it—some even took photos of this first-of-its-kind project.

“The main appeal of a project like this is that it adds another layer of creativity that was previously a print-only piece,” Fine says. “Advertisers would like to be able to provide an enriching and engaging experience with consumers. Now they can buy essential print property and create interactivity in locations that in the past might not have been able to do that.”

Advertisers count other advantages in using blended billboards as well. “They have an easily changeable component,” LeBlanc says. “It’s been hard to compete with media like newspaper, radio or TV, but now these billboards can display up-to-the-moment information.”

With digital components, “Clients now have an unparalleled flexibility to update their messages in real time and also target and adapt their message to the exact audience they are trying to reach,” says Alwin.

In fact, because of the increasing popularity of digital technology, more companies are converting or retrofitting their traditional billboards to full electronic models. Full digital signs typically rotate among a half dozen or so advertisers who are leasing the space, with each company getting about 10 seconds of airtime. Some advertisers do not mind sharing the space, LeBlanc says, because they are getting their message into a prime location and they can take advantage of the flexibility that it has to offer, such as real-time information.

For other clients, static billboards still make the most sense. LeBlanc believes that digital will never fully replace static vinyl outdoor signage. “Billboards are a great mass medium and for years they have been used as a great branding tool,” she says. “There are still so many companies out there that just need a good branding medium, and outdoor does that beautifully.”

That’s a (building) wrap

For the better part of the last decade, fabric-based wallscapes and building wraps have dressed up a structure’s exterior while impressively communicating a message. To bring these products to the next level, two companies have partnered to introduce a new product called Mediamesh®. Ag4 has designed, developed and patented Mediamesh in cooperation with GKD—Dueren in Germany (its U.S. operations are in Cambridge, Md.), a metal fabrics weaver. The product, which was first used on an exterior in Istanbul in 2007, is a transparent media façade that integrates digital imagery with color and metal fabric. At the same time, it is designed to become part of the architecture while maintaining daylighting, sun shading and open visibility qualities.

In addition, the product incorporates special high-luminosity LED strips woven at regular intervals (based on the project’s viewing distances, viewing times, sun direction, display requirements and cost structure) into GKD’s Tigris stainless steel mesh. “The LEDs are then interconnected and wired back to the computer control center where all content originates.

“The media installation can include images and graphic elements, films and live video input,” explains Barbara Kummler of ag4. “Use of the spaces behind the façade remains unrestricted.” Mediamesh has appeared in prominent places such as in Milan, Italy, and Times Square. For an installation at American Airlines Arena (home of NBA’s Miami Heat), the product rises 42 feet and plays video that reaches the stadium’s 1.3 million annual guests, along with those driving by on busy Biscayne Boulevard.

“Because temperatures in Miami can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it was critical that the Mediamesh be able to perform regardless of weather conditions,” says J. David Carduff, marketing and product manager for GKD-USA. “[The product] can also resist hurricane-force winds up to 146 miles per hour.”

The power of solar

The outdoor signage market is working on ways for billboards to harvest energy. For example, outdoor advertising companies, such as Lamar, are installing solar panel arrays on the top of vinyl billboards to not only power the nighttime lights but also feed electricity back into the energy grid. The Cooley Group in Pawtucket, R.I., is working to generate energy through the billboard itself.

The company has helped create a flexible, lightweight solar-powered billboard system constructed from its Enviroflex® printable billboard substrate, which is then integrated with a thin-film photovoltaic (PV) system. In June 2010, Cooley teamed with Lamar (the media printer), Ricoh Americas Corp. (the advertiser), Takara Media (the advertising agency) and Xunlight Corp., which produces the thin-film product, to create the billboard for Times Square.

Cooley plans to expand its eco-friendly offering to the outdoor advertising market yet this year. “We think there is a big opportunity for advertisers to take advantage of this system to send a message that they recognize the need to reduce their carbon footprint on our environment,” says Jeffrey Flath, president, Cooley Group. The system, Flath says, is designed to work with retrofitting any existing billboard structure.

By embracing digital technology and other leading-edge applications such as solar billboards, outdoor sign makers can keep one step ahead in a competitive industry that is seeking attention from a multitude of consumers. What’s more, the evolving nature of technology affords the opportunity for innovation, as well as for the formation of partnerships inside and outside the industry to expand offerings—and ideally profits—into the outdoor signage market.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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