Let’s Talk Shop: Staying Competitive in a Changing Wraps Market

Charity Jackson is owner of Visual Horizons Custom signs, a full-service commercial sign company based in Modesto, Calif.  She has been in business since 1995 and specializes in vehicle wraps, design and project management and workflow. You can visit her Web site at www.vhsigns.com.

I’ve worked in the sign industry for more than 20 years now—close to 19 of those years owning my own sign company—and I’ve learned that this is a highly competitive industry.

In our town we’ve seen new sign companies pop up on an almost monthly basis. Sometimes they have a prominent storefront; often they work out of their home. This makes for a competitive atmosphere in the wraps market; where success comes down to much more than just good business sense.

There are three areas that can help set your company apart and keep you successful in the wraps market. As the wraps market grows and your customers become more aware of what’s available, your company has to offer the best materials, better designs and top-notch workmanship to stay competitive.

For this fleet of truck wraps, the customer provided us with an image of the wine bottle and vector artwork for their Allure Pink Moscato label. Using ad slicks we were able to design a wrap that is easily visible, but also conforms to the overall brand.

Notice I didn’t mention price. While offering fair pricing is important, you don’t want to be the company that prides itself on being cheap. Especially when it comes to vehicle wraps. Keep in mind the saying “Quality, Speed, Price—Pick Two.”

Best Materials

This is probably the easiest of the three areas for you to compete in, but it does require that you do your homework. I’ve found that the reps from our supply companies are a great source for information on new products on the market. We rely on their help in finding out about new products and how they may work for our company.

Our suppliers in turn rely on the manufacturer to provide them with information on these products as well. Our area sales rep for 3M Commercial Graphics, Gui Julio, has been great about coming in and telling us about new products, answering questions about applications or material compatibility as well as helping us resolve any problems that arise. Creating working relationships with the company reps for the products you use most is important for staying on top of emerging products and product improvements.

If you want to truly compete in the wraps market, don’t skimp on your materials. Choosing vinyl and laminates that are not designed for long-term applications—or are not designed for the contours or concave areas on a particular vehicle—are destined to fail. Sure, you might save a few bucks up front, but if the graphics fail you’ll be faced with higher expenses trying to fix it.

These kinds of issues will also create strained relations with your customers. Our business is built on our repeat clients. Customer service is one of the most important elements to running a successful business. If customers feel like it’s difficult to work with your company they will go elsewhere.

So use the right material for the application. If it’s a temporary wrap with fairly flat surfaces then it’s okay to use an inexpensive calendared material to save your customer some money on the short-term campaign. All other wraps are typically designed to be on the vehicle for at least three years. Wraps are expensive. If the customer is going to pay for a wrap, then you should provide them with one that will last. Use cast vinyl and corresponding overlaminates that are designed for vehicle wraps.

If the wrap has major contours or concave areas be sure to choose a material combination with higher conformability like Avery Dennison’s Supercast Series or 3M’s Envision Print Wrap Film 480Cv3.

For our typical wrap we use a 3M IJ180Cv3 vinyl with gloss 3M Scotchcal 8548 gloss overlaminate. We recently switched our laminate from the 8518 to the 8548, which is only $15 or so more per roll, but provides better protection against acid dew issues we experience on our horizontal surfaces, like hoods. It’s also highly conformable and provides better scratch resistance—a small material change that offers our customers a better product.

Better Designs

Alright, so here’s where things get a little more challenging. Good design requires training to be a better designer. Whether you get formal training from school or it’s something you’ve learned on the job, effective wraps require good design.

If you are a small wrap shop and design is not your strong point then consider hiring a full- or part-time staff designer—if your shop is busy enough to support it. If not, then you can also hire an outside designer with experience designing for the wrap industry. Pay them on a per-project basis and add in the design fees to your customer’s costs. It’s important that whoever does your designs understands the difference between designing a flier or other print material and designing a vehicle wrap.

Vehicle wraps are expected to create an effective advertising campaign for a business. The wrap design should reflect the business’ overall brand. If the customer doesn’t have a logo, or they are not sure what their company brand is, now is the time to help them create one.

A brand goes beyond just the logo. A brand is a company’s overall identity; it creates a familiarity and consistency to who the company is, who they market, what they do and what makes them different than other companies in their field.

Your customers—and potential customers they may refer to you—are going to gauge the success of their wrap based on its effectiveness. An effective wrap has to be eye-catching and easy-to-read in just a few seconds.

To achieve this, text should be kept to a minimum. Text that is included should clearly state the company (name/logo), the service they offer and how to reach them (website and/or phone number).

Anything beyond these items should be used selectively including photos, background designs and special effects. Step back from your design and ask yourself if what you just added in was necessary. Does it improve the overall design or does it muddy it?

As you’re deciding extra elements, also consider whether designing the graphics as all vector art is more effective. Keep in mind vector artwork prints with crisper edges, is faster to work with than large Photoshop files and also RIPs and prints faster.

How it Fits

So we covered the elements of design that create an effective advertisement, but another important consideration is how those elements fit to the vehicle. Designing the layout on a flat, two-dimensional template is okay as long as you’re also considering how that same design will fit to the actual 3-D vehicle contours. An example of this is avoiding distortion effects on text that will be further distorted by vehicle contours. Also, planning for areas that will be trimmed out, like rubber seals around windows and door handles and hinges that will be trimmed out.

Take your time to properly tuck graphics into seams, trim out door handles and tuck and trim around lights. This attention to detail will not only impress the customer but will also help eliminate areas subject to failure.

Use the strengths (large, flat open areas) and weaknesses (hoods, fenders, areas with obstacles) effectively by placing important information in the strength areas and using simple design in the weaker areas.

Top-Notch Workmanship

I will be the first to admit that I’m not a speed-wrapper. While I don’t think that our crew takes an excessive amount of time to wrap a vehicle, we may not be as fast as the next guy. I do know that when the vehicle rolls out of our shop the workmanship is going to be top-notch and that is more important to us than speed.

Your customer can appreciate this workmanship, too. Especially if you explain the wrap process to your client, giving them an overview of the things your company will do to improve the look and durability of the wrap. Use this as a sales tool from the beginning.

We start on our workmanship right from the start, during the design process. Simple things like designing for minimal seams, or splitting your prints up to create a seamless wrap, improve the overall look of the wrap. Seams are to be expected on many wraps, but on vehicles with natural body breaks, try to design for fewer seams.

Thoroughly cleaning the vehicle is the next step. This includes removing all vehicle emblems and cleaning off the glue residue with Rapid Remover or a citrus-based adhesive remover. We also clean off all road grime and bugs at this point.

Any obstacles—like mirrors, headlights, taillights and license plates—are removed as well. This is followed by a full wipe down to clean off all dirt on the vehicle. We wipe inside gas tanks, around light housings, under the vehicle and hood.

Once all the dirt is removed we wipe the vehicle down again with an alcohol wipe to remove any residue. There shouldn’t be any chalky feel or flaking paint. Keep in mind the graphics will only be as durable as what they are stuck to.

One more step prior to installation is using 3M Tape Primer on any obstacle areas to promote adhesion. This is extra helpful in concave areas and areas subject to abrasion or high use.

Once the vehicle is fully prepped we start on the actual installation. The degree of skill your company possesses directly influences the level of workmanship the customer will receive.

Practice, practice, practice—but not on paying customers’ vehicles. Wrap your shop vehicles, your personal vehicles, file cabinets, etc. Take advantage of wrap classes and trade shows that provide hands-on workshops.

You will find that the more practiced you become, the more likely you will be able to avoid relief cuts. Developing installation techniques using heat, minimal stretching and squeegeeing you can often avoid relief cuts all together. Obviously there are exceptions, but avoiding relief cuts and overlaps will create a better-looking wrap with fewer areas subject to failure.

Final Trim and Post-Heat

The final trimming done on the graphics will also greatly influence the overall look of the finished wrap. Use a sharp knife when trimming along seams and obstacles to avoid jagged cuts. Take the time to fully smooth and tuck graphics into seams and around doors and gas tanks. The detail work makes all the difference. If you don’t properly smooth graphics in place they also become possible areas of failure.

Be sure to post-heat the entire wrap. This not only helps release the memory of the graphics, keeping them in place, but it also helps you see any areas that may not have been squeegeed as they will bubble up. A good post-heat treatment also helps smooth away any minor scratches.

Quality workmanship goes beyond the wrap and into follow up warranties as well. If any bubbles or problem areas should arise, we advise our customer to bring the vehicle back to us to make any repairs or improvements. Taking care of our customer through every step of the wrap process keeps us competitive in our local wrap market.