Bus and Motor Coach Library

The Importance of Exterior Bus Graphics

Author - Brian J. Niddery (2004)

Exterior graphics are more than just creating beautiful bodies; they have a far greater
value to the success of your company.  As such they should be considered as an important revenue stream or at the very least a primary marketing tool to promote your company. 

First we should define exactly what exterior bus graphics are about - the basis for their importance, and perhaps provide some measurement of their value.

The exterior surfaces of a bus or coach are essentially a traveling billboard. In fact every bus or coach in service along our streets or highways really constitutes four working billboards.  You have a curbside billboard, a roadway side billboard, and two smaller boards - a front and a back.  These billboards can vary in size all the way up to 12' high X 45' long. 

Fixed billboards located along our highways and throughout our cities and towns have always been considered an exceptionally valuable medium by advertisers.  And the sheer number of them is a testament to how important a commodity these represent to advertisers.  Billboards individually generate hundreds and thousands of dollars every month for their owners.

In many ways a moving billboard can attract more consumer attention than a fixed billboard.  Simply put, the movement of the vehicle itself draws consumer attention - whether on a highway, an urban thoroughfare, or even pulling into a terminal or parking lot. 

One of the reasons fixed billboards are popular with advertisers is the ability to target a specific geographical audience.  Mass media such as television, radio, or newspapers are very expensive these days, and not very cost-efficient if an advertiser wishes to reach a select group of people.  On the other hand, strategically placed fixed billboards can effectively reach a localized and defined market segment. 

Similarly, under certain conditions, bus and coach advertising can be just as strategically valuable to certain advertisers.  Buses are often employed in fixed transit routes, in daily commuter runs, operating as shuttles for hotels, airports, casino runs, and in serving scheduled intercity routes.

Media people and marketing consultants can quantify the value of a moving billboard through determination of the number of consumer exposures generated, by whom, and when.  From this information an advertising value can be assigned.  Depending on conditions, and the right kind of advertising clients, moving bus billboards can be worth from several hundred to several thousand dollars per month. 

And perhaps the best part of this is that economically it is a renewable resource - there is no additional cost to the operator; it is a pure profit revenue stream!  Unlike most primary revenue streams it doesn't cost extra for fuel, driver wages, or wear and tear on your equipment.

Adam Wright, Graphic Designer with Associated Graphics, Plain City, Ohio, notes, “In the past few years, truck advertising and bus advertising has evolved to become one of the most cost-effective advertising mediums available.  The average cost can be less than 70 cents per thousand impressions; that's around half the cost of traditional outdoor advertising.  In comparison the cost per thousand for five forms of traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and outdoor), ranges from $3.55 for outdoor advertising to $23.70 for TV advertising.  These studies were recently determined from a study done by RY&P (the largest advertising agency for the leisure and travel industry)”. 

He adds, “One of the best things about vehicle graphics is that an advertiser can pick and choose, often by the route or schedule that the vehicle drives each day, where, when and by whom the advertisement will be viewed.  An advertiser can effectively hand pick their market.  Again, based on the previous study, 96% of people interviewed said that fleet graphics had more of an impact than billboards.”

Adam goes on to say, “When extensive vehicle graphics were first introduced, the cost was astronomical.  In about the last five years, the cost has come down significantly.  This is why you see more vehicle graphics on the road today.  Vehicle graphics have become affordable enough that it makes a great deal of sense for the owner-operators to explore the idea.”

As an advertising medium, exterior graphics can efficiently fulfill a number of valuable objectives.  These can be categorized into four main avenues.

Company Recognition and Profile:
At the very least we know that these traveling billboards can be worth many thousands of dollars as an advertising medium.  As such you could very well be your own best client!  Given the tremendous value as an advertising medium and the thousands of consumers who will see it every day, you cannot afford waste this valuable resource!  Use this valuable resource wisely - by flying your own colors in the most imaginable and dramatic graphic scheme possible.

A Valuable Source of Revenue:
Advertising revenues can vary widely, but usually are based on a quantified consumer audience that will be exposed to your equipment.  As mentioned, its value can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars every month.  It also represents a predictable revenue stream for an operator.  In almost every case the advertising client pays the cost of applying the graphics/body wrap, and the removal of such at the end of the advertising term.  The bottom-line!  Pure profit income, and no expenses! 

Public or Community Relations:
Sometimes public transit systems, and in some cases private operators may provide this space for public service announcements, or as a contribution to a local or recognized charity.  This is an opportunity to foster goodwill and enhance public relations.  Usually the charity or a corporate sponsor will cover the cost of the graphics application and removal. 

Client Relations/Contra Promotional Programs:
Major clients will sometimes desire that their company colors fly on your equipment.  This can be an excellent method to enhance your business relations with your most important clients, and oftentimes can be traded off for longer duration contracts.  In some cases it can be a bargaining chip with new clients - "If you agree to guarantee us 200 revenue days per year, then we will provide you with a dedicated 'dressed-up' unit…"

In other situations, it may be good practice to enter into contra programs with major media companies - television, radio, newspaper, and cable providers, to trade off space or airtime, in return for a dedicated unit flying their colors.  Contra agreements can include straight media value swaps, or combinations that include their contracting your unit so many times a year, or involving making that unit available at community events and so on.

The first and most common use of exterior graphics is of course to promote your own company name.  Exterior bus graphics represents your most powerful corporate marketing tool.  Unfortunately it is a tremendously under-used commodity by most bus fleet operators.             

One operation that has successfully capitalized on the full marketing potential of bus graphics The Parking Spot, a company that operates parking facilities adjacent to a number of major airports.  As Mark Wildman, a senior executive of The Parking Spot, pointed out, “Our challenge was to develop an exterior graphic design that would communicate our brand name in a memorable way. In evaluating competitive shuttles, we noticed that most were driven by either cost concerns (factory white with some basic graphics on the body) or trying to look "professional" by adding suitably nice color and graphics, but nothing that would be considered memorable.  This resulted in a sea of sameness - with most of the competitive shuttles looking very much alike.  This represented a valuable opportunity for us.”

Mark goes on to say, “The spotted shuttles (yellow background with large black spots) work like mobile billboards for us. By creating a highly-memorable, and easily recognized graphic treatment utilizing bold black spots, customers think of The Parking Spot when they see the shuttles. They don't even have to see the brand name. There is no more effective way to reach air travelers, our prospective customers, than by delivering our message in a highly memorable way at the airport. In addition, the highly visible design enhances our service. Our shuttles are easy to find, which is consistent with our mission of ‘Making Air Travel a Little Easier’.”

Debra Mintz, president of Corporate Coach Consultants, Boca Raton, Florida, points out, “Back in 1993, operators accused me of putting ‘dresses’ on my coaches when I was the first known operator in North America to ‘Full-Wrap’ my fleet.  What the operators didn't know at that time was that my advertisers were paying my monthly coach payments.” 

She continued on to note, “Operators are missing out on substantial revenues if they do not develop an advertising program for their company.  Charter, Sightseeing, and Airport Scheduled Service operators can all add revenue by selling some or all of their exterior coach space.  ‘Full-Wrapping’ your coach generates positive cash flow, makes financing a new coach easier and even keeps your coach cooler in warm weather and lessens the likelihood of breaking a side window.  Wraps are easier to maintain than paint, and passengers and drivers alike love being onboard these eye-catching coaches.  If you are not currently selling advertising on your coaches you are definitely missing out on a fantastic way to make money.”

David Benedict of David Thomas tours says, “For David Thomas Tours to be distinguished as a first class motorcoach company, we knew that the appearance of our coaches would be the most important step in portraying that image.  We wanted a dynamic and eye catching design on our coaches to represent our company's commitment to quality.  We receive many calls from prospective customers who jot down our number from our coaches and they call us wishing to book a trip. We are pleased when customers tell us ‘I saw your motorcoach and it's gorgeous!’ We truly believe that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression”.

And as a fleet operator, you are not immune to the seduction of bus graphics either.  Every coach and bus manufacturer displays their equipment in the most fashionable ensembles possible at industry shows.  In their minds graphics are not an afterthought - and they just don't magically appear at these shows.  Countless hours are invested by managers, graphic designers, and staff in developing the sexiest, most dramatic and eye-catching treatments to attract you into their displays and into their vehicles.

Outstanding graphics generates great curb appeal.  Attractive graphics arrest the attention of consumers and passengers alike.  People take note and comment on smartest-looking buses.  It improves company image, and makes a favorable and long-lasting impression on people.  It tells people how professional your company is; and they will perceive your company to be that much safer, that much better, and likely to provide a more quality passenger service.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and so too are a set of professional-looking graphics."

Safety Benefits
One oft-overlooked aspect of modern film graphics is its ability to incorporate reflective values.  When one considers that the bus industry generally runs on a 24/7 basis, it follows that many, probably the majority of fleet units, log significant night time hours.  Given this fact, reflective graphics become an important safety consideration, and additionally it extends the hours of visual recognition.  A bold eye-catching graphic treatment by day, by utilizing some dramatic reflective properties can be just as attractive and eye-catching by night.

Something Old is New Again
Graphics can make even the oldest equipment look new again. Although motorcoaches are quite capable of a 20-year or more lifespan, and several million miles of revenue service, they are susceptible to the signs of aging.  With a little refurbishing and a good set of graphics, one can regain that attractive curb appeal once more.  By utilizing modern and attractive graphics, it is quite possible to make an old coach look new again!
Many assume that public transit authorities have no competition, and therefore there is little need for graphics.  However the private automobile represents a very potent rival, and requires aggressive marketing programs to win over commuters and urban ridership. As Jaimie Levin, Director of Marketing and Communications for AC Transit in Oakland, California, notes, “Projecting a positive, corporate image of AC Transit as a modern, progressive, and innovative organization is key to building political support, strengthening our financial position, building internal morale among our employees, and increasing ridership.

Results from our design study show that 97% of the public strongly welcome a new corporate look and identity.  A strong image is crucial to the growth and success of our agency's "corporate culture." We believe it is in our best interests to be perceived as a technology leader and a modern, progressive organization.  Our visual presence in the communities we serve has a significant impact not only with our riders, but many key constituents, including non-riders, key decision-makers, elected officials, funding agencies, our employees, future employees, and our unions.”

Larger Than Life - Corporate Style
And if you think that bus graphics may be the preserve of the larger fleet operators then you might want to reconsider.  Bus graphics are just as important to a one-fleet operation as it is to the largest of companies.  A strong visual corporate image can be your very best salesman. One excellent example is American Eagle Coach Lines of Central Florida.  We invited owner Jack Sherouse and his wife Patti to share their story.   

“We are not a large company, nor do we own several modern coaches, however, we are still providing quality service to folks here in Central Florida in the form of a locally owned and operated, one coach fleet.  I drive the charters and my wife Patti does the books and takes care of the office duties, and will occasionally accompany me on some trips as a tour guide.”

“Our coach of choice is a 1990 Eagle model 15 because of its superior ride and classic good looks.  It is a rare "smooth side" Eagle, rather than the more common "silver side" Eagles and believe me it gets just as many, if not more looks of admiration as the newest coaches on the road.  It features a rebuilt 8V92 Detroit, with only 27,000 miles on the clock, driving a 740 Allison transmission, new tires with chrome wheel covers, new shocks, and a new "Cloud Silver" metallic Imron paint job with patriotic graphics.”

“The name of our company is American Eagle Coach Lines and the exterior graphics match nicely with the name.  It features three larger-than-life eagles (one on each side and one in the rear) seemingly bursting through the aluminum sides of the coach.  Each eagle is carrying in it's talons a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon, with white stars in a blue field, flowing down the entire length of the coach on both sides, and encircling the eagle on the rear upper quarter.  These graphics are a combination of hand painted and air brush techniques performed in great detail requiring some 50 hours of a very talented local artist, who resides right here in our community.  We have also followed this theme through to our uniforms, and have even created headrest covers made up of white stars on a blue background.” 

“The coach has a clean looking, attractive theme which is eye appealing without being overdone.  It gets many positive comments from our customers both for its classic good looks, patriotic design and comfortable ride, thus proving that you do not have to be big company, nor do you have to operate new coaches to effectively compete in today's market.  We believe that this graphic works for us simply because Patriotism is never ‘out dated’ or ‘out of style’, especially in these troubled times.”

Value is in the Eyes of the Beholder
Visualize this scenario - A crowd of people are waiting at curbside all set to embark upon a bus tour.  Two identical buses draw up to a curb at the same time.  One has the name of the operator outlined in standard stick-on letters bordered by a broad monotone stripe running from front to back, while the other bus is dressed up in an excitingly attractive graphic treatment.  Guess which one that group of people hopes to board?  As identical as these buses may be, or as nice as the drivers might be, and as professional and safety conscious as both operators may be, the passengers will always gravitate to the nicer looking bus.  In their minds the more attractive a bus looks, the more luxurious, more comfortable, and the safer it will seem. 

Although both buses may be identical in every other respect, the perceived notions can be quite different.  And the perceived notions in the minds of those passengers are their reality.  This is true for transit riders, scheduled intercity, charters, tours, hotel shuttles, airport shuttles, parking lot shuttles, and virtually every other urban or community-based passenger service provided by the bus industry.  Not only do people want to ride on nicer looking buses; they will even be prepared to pay more to ride on them.

What kind of price tag can one put on a good set of exterior graphics?   It is a valuable commodity, either as a powerful promotional tool, or as a potential revenue stream, that by best accounts can translate anywhere from an additional five to fifteen thousand dollars per fleet unit in additional value annually.