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Marketing Neon In The New Millennium

LED vendors have done a masterful job of marketing their technologies, but the neon industry is fighting fire with fire.

By Jennifer LeClaire

The ridiculous reports of neon’s death have obviously been greatly exaggerated.

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  • With the rise of LEDs and fiber optics in the illuminated sign field, neon has come under fire. Some county sign ordinances are even outlawing neon. But the industry is not rolling over and playing dead. In fact, neon manufacturers and fabricators are fighting back with marketing strategies that promise to keep the industry’s light aglow in the 21st century and beyond.

    “Nothing will ever take the place of neon. It’s going to be around forever,” says Tim Piper, chief executive officer of Neon Design-A-Sign, a sign shop in Laguna Nigel, Calif. that also peddles LEDs and fiber optics. “Neon is an art form and it’s the brightest thing you can get ­ period.”

    Marketing strategies will play a large role in the adoption of lighting technologies in the future. The problem is that many consumers and sign shops are new to neon and don’t understand the advertising benefits associated with this artistic light source. That’s because while LED manufacturers have been making a broad marketing push, neon manufacturers have been narrowly focused on competing against one another.

    “The neon industry needs to stop fighting amongst itself and unite and teach the customers,” says Jym Howe, president of FABCO Neon & Cold Cathode Fabricating Company in Sanford, Fla. “Designers and sign shops don’t care what they sell.”

    Teaching the customers
    That’s just what the neon industry is doing. An informal initiative to educate architects, designers, sign shops and end users about the benefits of neon is gaining momentum. Presented with all the facts, the industry believes decision-makers will continue opting for neon for most applications.

    “With the advent of different lighting technologies, be it LEDs or fiber optics or standard florescent lighting, we have to re-educate young designers on a light source that has been out there for a long time,” says Kevin Rourke, national sales manager for EGL Neon, a leading manufacturer of neon products in Berkeley Heights, N.J.

    The first part of this education strategy is combating so-called false information perpetrated by the LED industry. LED manufacturers claim their technology is 90 percent more efficient than neon and can run for more than 100,000 hours. But Rourke argues that this is misinformation.

    “We can’t all sit back and just let LED manufacturers sell their products without contesting their unsubstantiated claims,” Rourke contends. “Where did they come up with the claim of 100,000 hours? There are no signs that have been up for 100,000 hours. It’s all based on laboratory tests, not real-world applications.”

    Neon, on the other hand, was introduced in the 1930s and has a 70-year track record of success.

    Admitting the shortcomings
    Of course, part of any truthful education initiative is disclosing the challenges along with the benefits. Nothing is perfect and denying shortcomings backfires in the long run because the competition will dwell on them. That said, the drawbacks don’t have to be sale-killers if they are communicated properly.

    “You have to educate customers on some of the pitfalls, like the delicateness of the glass,” says William Cherry, president of New Marketing Technologies, a marketer of custom neon signs in Miami Lakes, Fla. “But most importantly, you have to educate customers on the value of neon versus other forms of lighting for advertising purposes. Nothing beats neon for advertising purposes!”

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    Another downside of neon is the safety factor. But there are new technologies that help reduce the risks. “It’s difficult to overcome the safety stigma,” admits Piper. “But there are better transformers now that bring the voltage down to the equivalent of a 70-watt light bulb.”

    Technology’s role in neon manufacturing
    New technological advances are helping neon manufacturers remain competitive with alternate light sources in areas beyond safety. While neon has always been recognized as an efficient lighting source, solid state power supplies is resulting in energy consumption reductions of up to 50 percent.

    High-output phosphor technology is also giving the neon industry a boost. New colors for channel letter usage are increasing lumen brightness by up to 50 percent. “LED is very limited in its color palate,” says Rourke. “The main advance that LEDs have made is with red.”

    The ability to match corporate colors becomes another important marketing advantage because LEDs can’t yet distinguish between Coca-Cola red and Target red. Rourke says neon still comes much closer to Pantone standards for consistent corporate identities.

    For all the high-tech advances, some neon shops are competing with low-tech strategies that leverage neon’s niche as a classic art form.

    Roadhouse Relics, an Austin, Texas-based neon sign restoration company, is catering to filmmakers with its vintage 1940s style signage. Roadhouse Relics Signs is a small shop, but its signs have appeared in major motion pictures like Spy Kids, The Rookie and Miss Congeniality.

    “We studied old signs and use old type styles, colors and weathering techniques to create vintage-looking signs and restore original neon signs,” says Todd Sanders, proprietor of Roadhouse Relics. “Neon will never be threatened as an art form. Neon has a quality to it that is mesmerizing and hypnotic.”

    Marketing with customer service
    Education and technology aside, the neon industry is beefing up its customer service to keep its current clients and attract new ones.

    Hudson & Hudson Inc., a neon element wholesaler in Houston, makes free samples for sign companies so they can wow their customers. Hudson also allows clients to re-order replacement channel letters from its web site. The company keeps the letters in stock, ships them to the customer the same day and contracts with a local company to install the product.

    “We are implementing direct shipping strategies because, after analyzing what LED manufacturers were doing, that was the only thing in their package that we weren’t competing with,” says Loren Hudson, president of Hudson & Hudson. “We make neon, but we market a relationship. We market customer service. If they need it tomorrow, then they’ll have it tomorrow.”

    The Neon Shop in Syracuse, N.Y. markets itself as a one-stop shop for neon, handling everything from design, development, installation and servicing. The Neon Shop also offers competitive rates and fast turnaround on custom work and views large sign manufacturers as allies rather than opponents.

    “Many large manufacturers and sign companies do not have a dedicated neon operation or skilled neon specialists, so they outsource a lot of the work to me,” says The Neon Shop proprietor Camille Sleilati. “I can provide the customization that they need.”

    Safe for now
    Since LED is still evolving, it would appear that the neon industry is not an endangered species. As with any new technology, many companies won’t make investments until the prices drop, the product matures and learning curves are overcome.

    “Neon is older technology, but its technology that works,” stresses Rourke. “It’s up to the neon industry to get out there and educate people about neon and the advantages.”

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