Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. . .

In many cases, your first impression with people is your sign, but signage includes much more than that lighted thing on a pole out beside the road or on top of your building.

The definition of sign is not only a public notice bearing information or advertising, it is also defined as something that indicates a fact or quality. So how can you use signs in the best way to not only get the maximum return on your advertising dollars, but as a way to best display facts or show the quality of your product? That is what we are about to explore.

What is a Sign?

When it comes to restaurants and signs, most people think of the ones on the building or those out by the road. Signage also includes cartop signs, window decals, menuboards, sidewalk signs, tabletops, specials boards, and many other forms of mobile advertising. One of the things you want to do when purchasing signs is to create a cohesive look. You are spending money to get customers in, so continue to impress them once they get there and let your signage back-up your advertising. If you send out a mailer offering free cheese bread with a large pizza, make sure the offer is reinforced inside your restaurant on some sort of specials board or through tabletop tents. Don't create a hodgepodge look with one style of menuboard, a different style specials board, cartops and yet a completely different look on your outdoor signage. By coordinating the look of all of your signage, you begin to brand your restaurant and get more impact and a better impression with customers.

Different Applications

If you'll look around, you'll notice that signage differs depending on the type of location. Stand-alone locations have different styles of signs than locations in strip malls and restaurants in the cities are different from both of these. So what works best for each location and why are they different?

Let's start with strip mall locations. Here, in many cases, you have to deal with ordinances set by the landlords or by the city. In these locations you want to create more of a promotional look. Remember that pictures draw more attention than words. What captures your interest more, a picture of a pizza or the word pizza? Images work better, but there is a danger of trying to put too much on the sign. Remember that a sign is like a Christmas tree. You don't want to load it down with too many adornments or it becomes tacky and gaudy. Window displays also work well here because they continue to advertise at night, after-hours and when other businesses are closed. A backlit sign that is left on advertises 24 hours a day. These signs could be the most overlooked advertising in strip malls.

While backlit window signs may be more effective in strip malls, they may not be the route you want to take in a stand-alone location. Stand-alone restaurants are generally perceived as a bit more upscale than strip mall restaurants. You don't want a cheesy window sign in a nice restaurant. What you do want is to match your signage with your building's image. Create that packaged look and mirror the style of the building. In stand-alone locations, most restaurants can have signs out front beside the roads. This is where you can really grab attention. One of the best ways to do this is to incorporate some type of motion into the sign. Studies have shown that motion captures more attention than simply using light. Look into options that include some sort of flashing light or element of motion.

In the inner cities, your space for signage is limited. You also have city ordinances to contend with. What you are attempting to do is draw the attention of those walking by and get them to look in your direction. You want to show your product in your window, but many cities have ordinances limiting what you can do. For example, many cities do not allow things like neon signs that only face out of the window. There are loopholes around this though. One way is to use a double-sided window sign that is marketing your restaurant or products on the inside of your restaurant. With the double-sided exposure, you are also getting exposure outside of the restaurant. You may also incorporate things like sidewalk signs and sandwich boards in this type of locations, which we will get into later.

The Power of Pictures

As we just mentioned, a picture is worth a thousand words. You want to get your name out there, but a name is only as strong as the product that backs it up. Incorporating photos works. You want to put your best foot forward, so don't skimp on photography here. A good example can be seen in hamburger advertising. How many have ever ordered a Big Mac and opened the wrapper and found a hamburger that looks like those used in the McDonald's ads? The one in the ads has full, fluffy buns, the cheese drips perfectly off of the top of the meat, the tomato looks thick and fresh, all of which is selling the sizzle, not the burger. You buy into it. When using photos of food in signage, get the best quality photography available.

Items with pictures sell more than others, so think about what you want to display on menuboards and other signs. Select those items with the greatest profit margins. People know you have pizza, but they may not be aware of your appetizers, which probably have higher profit margins than the pizza. Certain entrees may make you more money than others, so use photos to drive customers towards these items.


We just explained the importance of pictures in signs, which directly relates to menuboards. Think about menuboards in Chinese food restaurants. How can you possibly remember what is in all of those dishes. If you are like me, you look at the photos and pick the one that looks best. Menuboards are important in the selling process. Make them easy to read, easy to find and consider things like pricing and menu changes.

Pricing changes happen and if your signs are designed properly, you can make changes without buying new ones. Look for menuboards that can have photos and prices replaced in-house.

Walk-around and Sandwich-board signs

One of the most economical and effective forms of signage is a walk-around sign, sometimes called sandwich-boards signs. These are the signs that people strap across their shoulders that have one board that goes across the back and one in the front of the person wearing it. Not only is this a cheap way to get attention, they are a grassroots marketing effort. Because they hang over the wearer's shoulders, their arms are free to wave and draw attention. These signs work great when you put an employee out near the road or on the sidewalks during lunchtime and at the five o'clock rush. You can buy these signs with removable letters, but if you are really looking to stretch your dollars, they can easily be made yourself. They are also great to have on hand during slow periods. Rather than have one or two employees sitting around, have them strap on the boards and go outside the restaurant to drum up business.


Another sign solution can be a banner that you can use over and over. Many times you may want to advertise a special for a limited amount of time. Have you recently added a buffet on a slow night? Well, you need to let customers know about it. If you sponsor the local high school's football or basketball teams you may want to have a different sign during different seasons. Many schools let you put up signs advertising your business on football field fences and gymnasiums. Maybe you participate in a local fair or carnival once a year. This can get expensive if you have to print something new for each event. The best deal with banners is that you can recycle them, like when you decide that you want to have a booth at the summer music festival.


Probably the sign that gives you the most exposure for the buck is a cartop sign. The DMV has conducted studies that state every vehicle on the road gets 500,000 to 750,000 impressions each month. Let's just take the lower number and say you have five drivers with cartops. That's 2.5 million impressions a month. Impressive, eh?

Here's some more information about cartop signs. When it comes to how the cartop sign is placed on the vehicle, the direction does matter. Did you know that 60 percent of advertising exposure comes from the rear? This means that you can get the most advertising by placing the cartop sign from side to side, rather than from front to back. Many operators believe they get better exposure in neighborhoods when the signs are placed front to back because customers can read them from the house, but where does you driver spend most of his time? In the neighborhoods, or on the road? And, how many people sit and stare out of the window compared to those who read it driving towards or behind your driver?

When designing your cartop signs, try to stay with the same basic design as your other signs and logos, but let's consider the color. Let's say you have a green logo and green lettering. Many pizzeria owners think it is good to go with a white sign with their logo and lettering the same as it is in the rest of their signs. Consider this, it may be better to reverse the colors and make the entire sign green and the logo and lettering white. Why? When someone looks down the street or glances at a car with a cartop sign and sees a big green sign, if it is in your branded solid color it tells them who it belongs to without ever seeing the logo or writing. Close your eyes and envision a car with a blue sign and a red and white logo…who is it? Domino's of course. If you see a big brown truck zipping down the road, do you really need to see the UPS logo? No, because you know by the color who it is.

Another thing that is important in the design of cartop signs is the phone number. With the increasing use of cell phones, including phone numbers is more important than ever. Many pizzerias are also incorporating web addresses on them to push online ordering and web marketing.

Alternative Signage

A signage idea many restaurants overlook is interstate information signs. On most interstates, the highway departments have those blue signs that tell you what gas stations are at the next exit along with a separate one for hotels and food. In many cases, you can have your logo placed on these signs at a very low cost. Contact you local highway department or DMV to find out if the one at your exit is available and for pricing. One of the newest forms of signs incorporates digital images. Has anyone noticed the new signs at some McDonald's? Not only do you have the outside menuboards, there is a digital screen at the speaker that is flashing specials and your order as it is being taken. While they are more expensive than backlit displays, they do have impact.
Vinyl cling signs are yet another option you have when it comes to signs. These are becoming more popular than the traditional poster-type window promos. Instead of being taped up or painted on the windows at the location, photos and specials are done on static-cling vinyl, which are then shipped or delivered to each store. The windows still appear to have painting on them and are much more attractive and effective than printed posters that seem to blend into the window.
Every part of your business is either an asset or a liability. Unused space costs you money to either rent or build. Selecting the right sign with the right marketing message turns it into advertising space, thus making it an asset. Signs can be as simple as the free letter boards you can get from soda companies or as complex as ones that project 3-D images. Take a look at your restaurant and consider what would draw your attention. Incorporate your concept and restaurant design into your signs and build your brand. Use quality photography and select the sign that gives you the most bang for the buck. Here are some resources for you to explore.