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Solving Our Identity Crisis

How do you refer to your company?

I no longer know how to refer to our company. I’m not comfortable with people calling us a “sign shop.” I’m not even sure I’m comfortable with the tag of “digital print operation.” Yes, we print, but printing has become just one of the services we provide.

Neither term – “sign shop” nor “print shop” – seems to be inclusive enough any longer. For us, being perceived solely based on the end product – sign, poster, banner, or even vehicle wrap – has become way too limiting. As many of you have done, we have broadened our horizons in recent years to include visual merchandising, interior decorating, architectural products (environmental graphics), garments, events, fine art, vehicle color-change wraps, and more.

Broadening the product mix
We have, for instance, added the following to our company’s product mix in recent years:

• We’ve added cutting to our finishing services. Before digital printing companies got into it, CNC firms with industrial-strength routing capabilities were mostly standalone cutting businesses. We bought our first large-format router table in 1997 because we wanted to contour-cut rigid boards with digital prints. Of course, this was before UV printing, so we had to first mount the prints to the boards. This was also before i-Cut, and it took some ingenuity to accurately contour-cut the digital prints, but we figured it out and did well with it. In 2002, when we adopted UV printing, we added a big multi-tool router table with i-Cut. Now, the pure CNC companies can’t compete with us for this print-and-cut business because they can’t image the boards. Our next step is to acquire a big, powerful laser table; we’re looking to add a 6 x 10-foot unit with a 450-watt laser that can cut plastic, glass, stone, metal, wood, etc.

• We moved into plastic fabrication, and can now do everything a plastic-fabrication company can – like bend and glue acrylic. And, with our expertise in Adobe CS6 and our design horsepower, we have an advantage over other company types when it comes to laser engraving images on acrylic. Plus, with our state-of-the-art UV printing equipment, we have imaging capabilities that other plastic fabricators do not. And, the fact that we’re executing fabrication in-house provides us with a price advantage when we sell plastic products to our regular client base.

• We now provide tradeshow and retail customers with fabric and coated acrylic panels that are used for video-projection displays. Since we cut and use acrylic and have the laminating capability to apply video-receptive film, we can fabricate freestanding, flat, high-definition video panels. Because we stock the fabrics that work well as front or rear video screens and we fabricate fabric panels, this is a natural addition for us.

• And we have inadvertently expanded to funerals. We did this at first by printing pictures for friends and family who had experienced this tragedy. Then we began doing visual-remembrance presentations for fallen local soldiers, pro bono. Now, people come to us as paying customers for the task of scanning photos and making beautiful visuals to display at the services. Last week, by natural extension, we began producing images to decorate the room of a woman in hospice so she can enjoy the remembrances provided by her family before her death. She is surrounded in her room by happy memories of the people who love her. I think that is a fine visual service to provide.
 

But we’re not a sofa manufacturer
So what does that make us? What do those of us who have pushed the envelope beyond “sign shop” now call ourselves? I posed this question on the International Sign Association’s LinkedIn page, and received quite a few interesting responses.

Esko’s Melody Vennum responded, “It sounds like you have made the leap from PSP (print service provider) to MSP (marketing service provider), by offering more for your customers.” I like that – it works for the tradeshow and vehicle-graphics side of our business.

Sharon Toji, president of ADA Sign Products, said: “The importance of this question goes way beyond marketing. We need the insurance industry and the government agencies that categorize work to catch up with us. We have suffered financially for years from the fact that worker’s-compensation classifications for the signage and graphics industry are so outmoded.

“Years ago, when we tried to tell one person about the difference between using computer-cut vinyl for signs and painting signs on the sides of buildings, we were classified as a furniture manufacturer – on the grounds that vinyl was used to upholster sofas. It took us six months to unsnarl that one,” she continued. “When we install ADA signs, we get arguments as to whether we’re laborers, carpenters, or painters. All of this [inaccurate labeling] has cost us both time and money, and has caused us to be audited and fined because we can't get clear answers.”

Sharon’s point is well taken. I have never found the proper box to check when it comes to dealing with a county, state, or US governmental agency. In fact, I think our business is licensed as “data processing.” I applaud her efforts to expand how government and insurance companies view us. Maybe we can continue this discussion and come to some consensus as to how we should be officially categorized with such agencies.

Sue Dalby, CEO of Sue’s Signs in Ontario, Canada, had her own take on this identity dilemma: “I can relate with this. I’ve been in the business for many years and my business has expanded into an entire ‘buffet’ of the sign industry. Crazy, but this led me into a new venture as well as signs – wedding decorating! It’s another facet of graphic design. I hear your problem and feel exactly the same way.”

Becoming a VSP
This question about what to call ourselves was the result of me being tasked to come up with our company’s new mission statement. We hadn’t produced one in a decade and it was time to reevaluate our mission. Before you can decide a mission, though, you need to know who you are.

And although we liked the aforementioned “marketing solutions provider” suggestion, it wasn’t quite inclusive enough for us. John-Paul, our lead technician, suggested instead, “visual solutions provider,” or VSP, and I really liked that. I bounced “VSP” around the shop and everyone seemed to think that fit us perfectly – because everything we do has a visual component, even as we move away in some cases from digital printing.

So, for us, “VSP” works today. The tag line on our business cards used to read, “Digital Images on Virtually Anything.” Now it proudly states, “Your Total Visual Solutions Provider.”

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