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Back to Basics

Signs are still advertising, and advertising is more important than ever.

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As may have become evident last month, I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently perusing old issues of ST, looking for answers. What did the sign industry do after the Great Depression? How did it cope? What I really wanted were some timeless truths, ones untainted by technological advances.
I found an editorial in the July 1934 ST that not only made sense, it was even inspiring. The following paragraph rings true three quarters of a century later.
“Advertising is still the mighty weapon against inferiority. It is the inspiration to the masses for healthier, happier and more contented lives. Devoid of superlatives, advertising will continue to be the backbone of progress and the cornerstone upon which all permanent and legitimate enterprises will be built. Without it, there can be no established standards upon which all life can progress. Without it, all efforts to improve would cease and we would digress to lower standards of living and become submerged in apathy.” Of course, the key word is “advertising.” What would happen if every sign salesperson interjected the phrase “advertising sign” in every sales presentation? Although on-premise signs are never sold based on CPM (cost per thousand impressions), they nonetheless constitute branding for the business, good or bad. And the only reason anyone patronizes a store is to improve their life. Sure, there’s a big difference between things we need and things we want, but in both cases, we presume their purchase will enhance our lives.
Then I found an article in our February 1924 edition (when the economy was humming) that included some interesting logic. Author L.F.R. Bellows begins with the assumption that rent is a big cost common to most merchants. Why, he asks rhetorically, are rents on Main St. higher than those a block away? Obviously, “it’s the value of the location.”
So, if rent is determined by that value, in conjunction
with the amount of space occupied, wouldn’t the merchant want to fully exploit both?
Bellows wrote: “There is no more excuse for neglecting the advertising value of his location than there would be for partitioning off part of his store and failing to use it, although he pays rent for it every month. The best way to get full value from the landlord is to use electric signs.”
Later in the article, he describes the ideal sign salesman as having energy, imagination and honesty. The first two qualities perhaps are more abundant. Bellows characterizes the honesty component by writing that a proposed sign should be “large enough to get the message across, but not larger than was needed. The proper type of sign for best results and intelligently designed for the purpose it was to accomplish. The ideal salesman did not ‘yes’ the customer when he asked that the job be completed next day, but consulted the shop and then promised a delivery date that could be met. His honesty – or sincerity, if you prefer – gained the proprietor’s confidence eventually and enabled him to stimulate the proprietor’s imagination along the same line.”
Each salesperson has varying degrees of each quality, but all should be “selling ‘sign advertising,’ and not just merely ‘a sign,’” Bellows wrote.
And that advertising value (as noted last month) is not determined by the features of the sign, but by the benefits that its advertising will generate. The former is merely a means to an end.
Does your customer want an electronic message center with 16.7 million colors, or one that will increase his sales by 10%?
The following month, showcard artist Laud S. Hamilton revealed his philosophy in his article’s headline: “Service sells when everything else fails – It should come before quality.” He spoke about an order that came in on a Saturday at 11:10 a.m., when his shop closed at noon. The job was completed. Hamilton said price should be the third consideration.
In today’s economy, can this be true? In Susan Conner’s survey of service/maintenance companies, many comments involve cutting prices. Sign companies that routinely must endure bid competitions face this as well. Can a sign company stick to its pricing policies?
During the Great Depression, in 1933, Congress and FDR stepped in with the National Industrial Recovery Act and made it illegal to underprice jobs to the point of eliminating profit. Fines would be levied against violators by the National Recovery Administration.
In an April 1924 article, Bellows wrote: “Don’t try to sell a man something he shouldn’t have simply to stay within a price.” Also, “Don’t lead a man to believe you can supply the same sign at a lower figure than your competitor. He immediately convinces himself that someone is lying. You will have lost his confidence as well as part of your own foundation for honesty.”
Was there anything resurrected here that you hadn’t already heard? Doubtful. I like the axiom “I’m not a slow learner; I’m a fast forgetter.” In perplexing times, human nature seeks to unearth novel concepts. But perhaps it may be better to revisit fundamental truths.
 

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