What's in a Sign?

December 1, 1998

14 Min Read
What's in a Sign?

Proper signage key to facility's marketing plan

Most expertswill agree that a business isn't worth a dime without the right kind of sign. How else cana customer find your business?

Self-storage is no different. In fact, because storage is a micro market in which amajority of customers come from within a five-mile radius of the facility, an effectivesign can play a major role in attracting tenants. It's true that not everyone driving byyour facility is looking for storage space. But when the time comes for that person torent a space, a good, properly placed sign at your facility may have made the right impacton his memory, and your facility may just top his list of storage possibilities.

The elements of signage may not be as simple as one might imagine. However, if youcould place a sign of any size, any color, any place on the facility, it would be simple.Unfortunately, there are the inevitable wrestling matches with zoning boards; decisionsover color, lettering and lighting; and problems of placement. Let's begin with thebasics.


Careful thoughtshould be given to the name of a facility. An easy-to-remember name is the safestsolution. Make it easy for customers by using logic. For example, if your facility is onMaple Street, how about Maple Street Storage?

Jim Chiswell of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Chiswell & Associates, says he's surprised atthe lack of savvy marketing some owners use when naming a facility. Choosing a name thatties into the community some way is an effective tool for attraction and advertising, hesays. "The sign is the final part of the directions to your facility," explainsChiswell. "If you have a unique facility name, such as 'Speedway Self-Storage,'--thename of the street the facility is on--you could put a checkered flag on your facility. Ormaybe name it 'Water Tower Self-Storage,' after the 40-foot water tower in the back ofyour facility."

Also, make sure the sign is coordinated with the same information that a customer willfind when browsing the Yellow Pages. This way, they will make an immediate connection. Youwant your advertising dollars working for you, not against you, right?

Size Matters

Here's a simpleone: How big should it be? Of course, bigger is better, but be careful of zoningregulations. No doubt they will play a role in how big your sign can be. Don't wait untilafter you've invested into an extravagant, monolithic sign before contacting the citydepartment.

Call the planning and zoning department and ask to speak directly to the signinspector, who can give you the dimensions and other sign regulations for your facility'sarea.

Location, Location, Location

The key to thelocation of your sign is to put it on a visible streetfront, easily seen by drivingmotorists. Again, zoning ordinances will most likely dictate where the sign can be placed.Look at nearby businesses to get some clues. If they have huge signs perched on thestreet, chances are you'll have the same luxury.

If the facility is on a main street and set very close to the sidewalk, you may get bywith placing the sign directly on the office or another structure. If the property restsalongside a freeway, a tall sign visible to those drivers may be a good promotional tool.

"I always put it right out front, if possible, on the busiest street, andhopefully I can put up a secondary sign--usually wall-mounted," says Daryl Flaming ofthe Tierra Corp., a multiple-facility operator based in San Diego, Calif.

For a facility that's located near--but not on--a main drag, consider negotiating witha local business owner on the main street to post a directional sign on his property withthe name of your facility and an arrow to lead traffic in the right direction.

Another idea--albeit a sneaky one--is to post temporary signs, similar to those used byreal-estate agents promoting model homes or politicians promoting their campaigns. Thesetemporary signs can be strategically placed during busy weekends to pull in a nice chunkof business.

One word of caution, though: Temporary signs can infringe on zoning regulations. Ifposted illegally, the facility owner may receive a warning, possibly a citation.Nontheless, some facility operators post the temporary signs anyway, reasoning that asmall fine is well worth it if they rent most of their units with the help of these signs.But be aware that some jurisdictions levy heavy fines on businesses that abuse signordinences. According to Martin Lorch, president of BPI Capital Management in Phoenix, oneArizona municipality charges $2,500 for each day that a sign--including temporarysigns--is in violation of city code.

Another pieceof advice: Don't post signs at the risk of offending community members. Remember thateveryone is a potential customer, and if you upset too many members of the community, youmay wind up out of business. Therefore, consider posting directional signs on the weekendwhen they're less likely to be nabbed by zoning officials, then retrieve them beforeMonday morning.

But Lorch encourages self-storage owners and operators to take any advantage of signagethat area authorities allow.

"In the mini-storage business we have so few media in which to promote ourselves,so signage is very important," says Lorch. "You need to maximize the amount ofsign you have. If the city allows you to have wall signs, put them up. If they'll allowyou to put up signs on both sides of your property, put them up."

Sign Design

Keep the designsimple, with an easy-to-read typeface, a limited amount of information and concisemessage. Remember that people have to read within the time it takes to drive by thefacility.

The words "mini-storage" or "self-storage" should be the mostprominent feature on the sign so that customers can make an immediate connection. The onlyother information necessary for the sign is the phone number, and that's only if space andzoning regulations permit it.

Lorch says certain areas won't allow signs to contain any sort of advertising,including stating the facility has such amenities as climate control or security measures.For example, Lorch says in one city, he knows of a facility that was forced to rework anew sign because it contained words simply describing the facility.

"They said you couldn't have any advertising copy, meaning you can have your logoand the words 'self-storage,' but you can't say 'all units alarmed orclimate-controlled,'" Lorch explains.

How about color? The right color can make the sign stand out bright as day. The wrongcolor can fade into the rest of the neighborhood.

Generally speaking, yellow is often a standout color, but not if the rest of thestreet's signs are already yellow. Why not walk the street of your facility and take aninventory of colors used, choosing one seldom or not used? Stick to primary colors;pastels are too pale and earth tones are too mundane.

To make the lettering stand out, consider using contrasting colors, such as black orred letters on a white background.

Although important that the sign be seen, Chiswell believes it should blend into thesurroundings somewhat, and likes signs with a solid background and white lettering, makingit easy to read both during the day and at nighttime.

"I don't know if I'd put a neon sign in the middle of Nantucket Island, forexample," he says. "(But) you don't want it to be just another sign."Chiswell suggests driving in the area of your facility, especially at night, to get avisual landscape of the other businesses in your area. In some places, he says, it may besmart to offset the sign a foot or two deeper onto the property than others on the street.Even though it's not closer to the roadway, the visual appeal of being different makes thesign stand out from the group.

Finally, for franchises or facility chains, uniformity of colors and graphics play animportant role in customers' recognition of the business.


If zoning gives the green light on lighting, go for it. A backlit sign is a must toattract attention at night, and it should be lit from dusk to dawn. Electronic timers cantake the burden out of having to consistently remember to turn the sign on and off.

One bone of contention for neighbors, however, may be that a too-bright sign createslight pollution in the neighborhood. This shouldn't be a problem in commercially zonedareas, but in residential areas, cities can be strict on lighting. According to MelHolsinger of Tucson, Ariz.-based Executive Self Storage Associates Inc., one of hisfacilities near Tucson is restricted from using lighting because it is located on adesignated "scenic corridor." "We can't have a lighted sign, period. End ofdiscussion," he says.

A Sign of Change

Many business owners have found that using a reader board can draw more attention totheir location because people driving by look and read the messages displayed on theboard, especially if they're changed frequently. These changeable signs may be used topromote the business, such as a grand opening or special giveaways/promotions. They canalso be used as advertising for community events such as the Boy Scouts' Scout-A-Rama orchurch bake sales. It's also the perfect spot for offering holiday cheer, or announcing awedding anniversary or birthday.

Chiswell agrees and thinks reader boards are under-utilized in the self-storageindustry. They're a perfect way to promote your facility through advertising and get theattention of civic leaders in a different fashion, he adds.

"Fifty percent of the time, a reader board should be used to promote somethinggoing on in the community or some holiday," explains Chiswell. "Promotesomething for the volunteer firefighters, Girl Scouts or local church bazaar, etc. Whatyou're doing is soliciting community and civic organizations, using your name. That'sgoing to be brought up to their board of directors or committees and, all of a sudden,your name is used in a non-sales environment with all these people from the community andthey will discuss it."

Other Possibilities

A conventional sign is not the only way to attract attention. Don't overlook thepossibility of using banners for grand openings, special promotions, auctions, etc. Butdon't forget to consult your zoning restrictions. And once you've used the banner forawhile, don't forget to take it down. If it's faded or ragged, it reflects poorly on thefacility.

Other attention-getters include illuminated awnings, an American flag flying highoverhead and an exceptional landscaping job, like freshly mowed grass, trimmed hedges anda lots of fresh flowers.

"You can't ignore the physical appearance of the facility as a sign," relatesChiswell. "I see facilities that are just gorgeous; some have won landscaping awardsand are very attractive when someone is considering renting. They know the facilitybecause they drive by it everyday."

The Price

Expect to pay at least $500 for a good sign. If you're shopping for an illuminated andextremely large sign, costs run as high as $20,000 or more.

Despite the costs, don't even consider using a homemade sign. You may save a bundle insupply fees, but you will likely lose on the rental side of things. Nobody wants to rentfrom an unprofessional- looking business.

Give 'Em Something to Look At

While tackling a municipality zoning board may be no fun, getting a good sign at yourfacility is of utmost importance, especially considering that the majority of your tenantswill probably be drive-bys. If you give them something to look at, whether it be anexpensive back-lit pole sign, or a clever phrase on your reader board, they may just beyour next customer when they're in the market for storage.

What's in a Sign?

By Pamela Alton

As we drive down the street, we are bombarded with visuals everyday: signs, flags, billboards, etc. What makes one sign stand out from another? Is it the color, graphics, size or the information it gives us?

When you first entertained the idea of building, buying or managing a self-storage facility, I bet you began to notice self-storage signs everywhere. Some of them looked like a third-grader made them in class, and some cost thousands of dollars. The type of sign and the price you pay for it depends on many variables. Your city or county may have restrictions on size, height, placement, colors you can use, and so on. Before you invest in a sign for your facility, I suggest you check with your local building or city planning department as to any restrictions on signage. It could save you a lot of time, money and frustration.

There are several areas that should be addressed when it comes to signs. Obviously you need your facility name on the sign, but it should not be the largest wording on it. "Self-storage," "mini-storage" or just "storage" should be the largest print on your sign. Your sign is telling people what your business is, and that is self-storage.

Color is another factor. Statistics show red draws the eye to any sign. To test this theory, drive down the street and see what signs you notice more than others. It's nice that your facility is color-coordinated in teal blue, but that might not be the best color to use in your sign because if it blends into the surroundings, people might drive by without ever noticing your facility.

The sign must be lit and be visible at night, also. You should periodically drive by your facility in the evening to make sure the sign is lit and no bulbs are burned out. If you don't have an electrical can with lights inside, at least have spotlights aimed towards your sign and, again, make sure there are no burned-out bulbs.

As stated before, size may be dictated by your city or county. Monument or pole signs are typically the type of signage you will have. If your city restricts you to a small monument sign, then consider placing the tallest flagpole allowed by the city and fly the American flag. You can fly an American flag, your state flag or company logo flag on the pole, and of course, light it as well. This is a good technique to use if you have a location off a main thoroughfare and your managers can use the statement "look for the huge American flag" in their telephone presentation.

Pole-sign height may also be restricted per zoning codes; however, you should purchase the largest one you can afford. Either a monument sign or a pole sign can be used as a changing advertisement billboard by having a marquee-type of front where you change the lettering or message, either manually or electronically. You can offer managers specials on certain sizes, free locks with move ins, packing or moving supplies, or place little message quips that you change regularly.

Other types of signage includes sandwich boards, rooftop signs, flags, banners and balloons. Sandwich boards can be portable and placed at the entrance of your facility displaying similar information as a marquee sign. Small flagpoles can also be attached with banners to draw attention to the sign. Rooftop signs are good for facilities next to a freeway so they can be seen. The message here may be directions for exiting the freeway to access your facility. We have all seen the large blimp-type balloons used at car dealerships; they also draw attention to those facilities that are hard to see or difficult to find. Make sure they are rotated on a regular basis, replaced when needed and placed around the top of the facility roof or wall. Banners can be placed along walls that face freeways or busy streets, or on the office building. Some cities restrict banners, so check with your city to see if you can get a variance for three months to place your banner. They could promote a grand opening of a new facility, offer move-in specials, truck rentals and so on.

Remember, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on a professionally designed and built sign, but you should make sure your sign looks professional, as it is a reflection of your facility. Always check your local zoning or building codes that pertain to signage before you purchase your sign, and make sure the sign tells what your business is: storage.

Pamela Alton is the owner of Mini-Management, the largest nationwide manager placement service. Mini-Management also offers management, policy & procedures and sales and marketing training manuals, inspections & audits, consulting, new facility start-ups and training seminars. For more information on the various services offered by Mini-Management, call 1-800-646-4648

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