Sign with the Times! Messages that Speak to Today’s Consumer

By: Jim Bradley

From: Garden Chic, Best of Show Issue, 2013

Sign with the Times! Messages that Speak to Today’s Consumer
Throughout each day, you are constantly taking in information. If you’re reading this, you’re forming a mental map, a personal point of view. You’re making sense of what is around you and looking for ways to connect with your surroundings. Information that recommends, educates, comments, informs and inspires will be high on your agenda. Effective signs and signage will point you in the right direction, help you reach a decision, confirm what you want to know and reveal discoveries that you never knew.

Your customers are no different. Give them what they’re searching for by using the least expensive advertising tool available: signage. Good signage keeps bricks and mortar feeling fresh. It conveys your branding to consumers and reminds them where they are shopping. It is a touch point that keeps them in their comfort zone and stops them from feeling discouraged. It directs and advises, engages and confirms. It helps them make the right decisions. It can even help harbour good memories. Every store should formulate and put into action a “Signage Rule Book” and use it in conjunction with its store merchandising and customer standards policy booklets. Remember the adage, “Retail is detail?” In 2013, it now reads, “Retail, detail and ME-tail.” The information presented needs to confirm to, and identify with, the consumer’s personal requirements.

Worth the Effort
Often, signs are reduced to the status of an afterthought, a last item on the agenda that is quickly put together with a minimum of thought or planning. A quick handwritten squiggle with a black marker on a white card or an ill-conceived, over-stylised desktop publisher effort can defy your store brand in just about every conceivable way. It can alienate customers’ expectations, confuse and mislead, and leave you down the field in the retail race.

Remember, just about everything you sell these days can be bought elsewhere in our omnichannel retail world. To stand out, you need to become an “information geek,” as well as a “customer service geek.” Present the pertinent information on how and why to buy to your target audience in a truly intelligible and memorable format.

Signage should communicate your branding to your customers, and it should tell them where they are located, why they should have this product and what is unique about it. Invite them to buy, and if you can incorporate humor, do so. Because we don’t see much of the latter in online retail, if at all, it can become your unique point of difference.

Most brick-and-mortar establishments have invested heavily in infrastructure. Signage, in the grand scheme of business, is a very inexpensive component. Nonetheless, it should be executed correctly so that it yields one of the best returns on investment possible.

Choose Your Words
Pick almost any product off the shelf these days in any type of store, and it will be smothered in professional copy on every side. As a consequence, today’s consumer expects great copy. Good copy can defeat hesitation, and it will overflow your senses with lots of positive thoughts. It will continually remind you of the product’s benefits and features.

A major difficulty with writing copy is, generally, there is too much information and too little space. To make the best use of the limited copy length, avoid cliches and empty and long-winded phrases, and keep asking if these words are all really necessary to get the message across. Condense whenever you can. If you have five key benefits, for example, try to reduce that to three, highlighting the most important and letting the others be subsidiary.

The copy does not have to be descriptive or introductory because the product is tangible and right under the customer’s nose. But it has to be persuasive enough to sell the product there and then, as you may not get a second chance. Get familiar with key words from reviews, quotes, testimonials and endorsements. Summarise benefits and key features, include guarantees and uses for the product, and if it includes a bonus or special offer, say so. Flash your stats and facts! A few simple facts can make copy convincing, but beware of claims that could be construed as too good to be true. Just make sure that what it does is exactly as it says on the tin.

Bring benefits to life, but don’t confuse benefits with features. Features are what it does, how it works and what it is made of. If it were a barbeque under discussion, the features would be the charcoal pan, stainless steel construction and 144 square inches of cooking area. If we talk in terms of benefits, it becomes the non-burning rotisserie, delicious flavours from a patented cooking system and enamelled roasting plates for easy cleaning. I know which set of facts I would remember! Benefits turn retail into ME-tail. You may stock the most superior barbeques in town, but if you fail to articulate the benefits and instead simply list the manufacturer’s features, you are not telling your target audience what it wants to know. Customers do not have psychic powers! Don’t underestimate the value of good signage - it brands your operation, drives traffic and promotes sales.  

Picture This
One of the easiest ways to enhance your signage is through visual imagery, which is really an enhanced version of reality. It is a very powerful weapon that can sell fantasy through a medium of visual clues. The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” merely illustrates the superiority of the visual medium over words. Some convey meanings that simply cannot be expressed in words alone.  

The best images have two ingredients. Firstly, they bridge and amplify the message from the text, and secondly, they must relate to the user and the user’s needs. A prime example from outside our industry was given to me by Paco Underhill in Belfast some years back. He was doing some work for liquor stores and likened the endless rows of mundane, purely “factual” signs within the store to those he would see in lots of garden centres.  

Paco’s brief was to widen the audience for beer bought from liquor stores. In the U.S., he said, very few women drink beer, so he introduced a series of visual images incorporating lifestyle statements that showed women enjoying a beer whilst barbequing or enjoying a lite beer whilst chatting to other lady friends. The original name, rank and serial number type signs were also reduced. The end result? More women now drink beer.

I still believe visual imagery to be a powerful and previously overlooked component within our industry. Just look at the perfume, ladies fashion and automobile industries. You will see visual imagery is at its best when dual coded with great copy.

And really, all this is nothing new. Prehistoric cave dwellers were combining images with symbols on cave walls 30,000 years ago. There is no need to stop dual coding in your signage now. Bring the benefits to life, flash the facts and complement with powerful imagery. Then, you will have a sign of the times!

Link to the Photo Album

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