FOLLOWING THE SIGNS

This is the age of high-tech in-store marketing. But there's still plenty of life in one of the oldest, simplest and most often used tools of in-store marketing - the static sign.Brand marketers find that signs continue to have a place in the marketing mix of the 1990s."The real advantage of static signs is with brands that happen to have a lower consumer awareness and penetration than existing, thriving

This is the age of high-tech in-store marketing. But there's still plenty of life in one of the oldest, simplest and most often used tools of in-store marketing - the static sign.

Brand marketers find that signs continue to have a place in the marketing mix of the 1990s.

"The real advantage of static signs is with brands that happen to have a lower consumer awareness and penetration than existing, thriving core brands," says John Talbot, director of core brand events at Pepsi-Cola, Somers, N.Y. "In those instances our job is really to generate a greater presence in the store from a visual-inventory standpoint."

On the other hand, the company's top-drawer brands such as Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew are better served with in-store broadcast combined with typical measured-media advertising.

Another consideration is the retailer. The use of static signs is as much a play for the retailer's attention - and good shelf placement - as it is a direct pitch to the consumer.

"This type of sign is used to generate a greater amount of retail activity, but not charged directly to the consumer," according to Talbot.

"What you are really trying to do is break through the clutter, with the whole idea being a greater in-store presence." Marketers like Talbot of Pepsi also imply that, along with the pursuit of a greater in-store presence, static sign programs afford effective political leverage with the retailer.

These programs are an efficient tool for negotiating both the size and creative thrust of premium display space in lieu of substantial discounting, which can cut into profit margins for all the players involved.

"Nothing will sell out product better than a big, massive 500-case display in the lobby of the store," Talbot says. "In order to get that, we generally either provide a substantial price reduction or some sort of in-store marketing activity that can help generate some excitement for the retailer in the store.

"Within that, don't forget that the product has to rely on store personnel to build, stock and merchandise the displays. With static signage, we have much greater control right off the bat of what the display looks like," he says.

Naturally, display control is a big priority for brand marketers. Many say they that when it comes to in-store static signs, they like the control over creative elements within the message that are available through most turnkey static sign vendors.

Another major point: Because static sign vendors bring retailers a lot of business across a wide variety of product lines, supermarkets are more apt to respect the static sign agreements signed with these vendors than limited-scope, store-placement arrangements made with distributors.

"Some of those types of programs are effective in part because we have a guarantee that they will get out on the floor and be maintained," says Millie Hoffman, sales merchandising manager at Pillsbury Co., Pillsbury, Minneapolis.

"Nobody will take them down by mistake because they have been put there on a contract basis. If we do it on our own, there is no guarantee that we can get the display up and it will stay up," she says.

Some of these vendors have much clout indeed, Their appeals to marketers are based on many factors, including lower cost than more "high-tech" modes such as electronic signs and in-store broadcast; sheer numerical clout in terms of retailers they have on-going relationships with, and periodic new creative approaches.

Not surprisingly, some static sign vendors buzzphrase the dynamics of their medium's appeal. Brendan Culligan, president of Inmarket Inc., Westfield, N.J., refers to "three zones of communications" in regard to how the shopper makes buying decisions with the aid of static signs.

With static signs currently in more than 3,200 supermarkets, Culligan calls these three areas the "Big Picture Zone," the "Invitation Zone" and the "Decision Zone."

Says Culligan: "You must remember that when a consumer enters a retail environment, he is barraged with thousands of advertising and visual impressions. If these impressions are orchestrated in a neat, orderly fashion, it can be useful and stimulating information for the consumer.

"If they are not, the consumer will find the retail environment unattractive and it will create an impediment from having him return to that specific store one more time," Culligan says. He likens this "Big Picture Zone" to a wide-angle camera lens, spanning the width of the store.

"We feel overhead signage should be sufficiently high enough so that the consumer can see the whole perimeter of the store and see the wall signage around that specific store. In one view, the consumer should know where to buy meat, poultry, cat food, baby food and other major selling areas," says Culligan, who recommends that overhead illuminated siigns be at least 9 feet off the floor.

He then defines the "Invitation Zone" as one with signs containing good photography, pricing information and product data specifically related to the type or brands of products being sold in the aisle.

It sounds elementary, but Culligan says he has seen his share of misplaced signs.

"In our travels, we have observed that in-market advertising signage supplied by some major media companies often have picutres of meat in the aisle where soap is sold," scoffs Culligan.

The vendor adds that in a recent test, dynamics of the "Decision Zone" - the area where customers make their purchase decisions - were quantified in tests with retailers. Working with an independent research company, 23 matched-pair stores in three major markets were picked. Each of the 23 paired stores had similar demographics and pricing with the other in its paired group.

Then 23 of the stores were given signs with generic photographs of the item touted, while the matched stores were given signs with brand-specific photos. Several product types were compared.

The test lasted 13 weeks. In all cases, the more specifically illustrated brands logged greater sales than their counterparts in the control group stores.

Some of the differentials were: cookies, 4.4%; crackers, 6.9%; canned soup, 4.5%; bread, 6.5%; pastry, 8.1%, and baby diapers, 6.2%.

"Clearly, with all things equal, good in-store advertising can encourage the consumer to try a new line extension," Culligan says.

In static signs, the variety of creative presentations is increasing. Inmarket's Incheck consists of injected-molded plastic order separators with the retailer's name on one side and the advertiser's message on the reverse side. The ad panels are 2 inches wide by 20 inches long. Half of all order separators in each store carry each advertiser's ad.

The two most widespread static sign programs are Aislevision by Actmedia, currently in about 7,500 supermarkets; and MediaOne Lights by Time Inc. In-Store Marketing, which is in about 6,500 stores.

Aislevision, which claims a reach of 48% of all U.S. adults at 5.5 times over a typical four-week period, uses 20-inch-ligh by 30-inch-wide signs.

The signs are inserted in directories suspended above the aisle. Actmedia also offers freezer door signs called Freezervision and a shelf-edge holder for rebate and informational fliers called ShelftakeOne.

MediaOne, which claims 351 million impressions per month nationally, uses a two-sided, 10-inch-high by 13-inch-wide, backlit advertising sign system located at each checkout lane. A header card directing consumers to the aisle where the product is stocked is also incorporated , as is TakeOne, a holder attached to the MediaOne pole that can be used to promote mail-in rebates and premium offers.

Price is the other main advantage brand marketers cite for using static signs. Prices vary widely according to the length of the contract, the number of items displayed and the size of sign, but are seen as significantly lower than higher-tech media.

"High-tech works for us, but a big problem is price point. The effectiveness gets tempered by the cost, a problem that the use of static signage can capitalize on," says Mike Perry, director of media for Nabisco Brands, Parsippany, N.J.