Making the Grade: Supporting School Pride
When it comes to finding new printing opportunities in your local market, one you might not be taking full advantage of is the educational system. From high school sports teams to collegiate events, there are a wide range of opportunities for printers willing to take the time to build relationships.
The key word is relationships. One of the few constants between PSPs who have successfully cultivated school jobs is that it took time and effort to first get a foot in the door, and then grow it into a long-term partnership.
One shop using that model is Chicago-based Cushing. Jon Davis, marketing & content manager, notes, “Cushing’s director of business development calls on schools and has built relationships with athletic directors and principals over the years, which leads to referral work — and repeat work. We are [currently] preparing an end of year outreach to athletic directors and principals, with a goal of distribution prior to the holiday.”
Another shop that has spent time and energy cultivating relationships is the Rochester, N.Y.-based Excelsus Solutions. Dave Laniak, VP of operations, notes that the vertical “just fell in our lap, so to speak,” when the shop started out calling on schools to see if they could provide imagery for their sports teams. From there, he says, they developed relationships with the athletic directors, which blossomed into long-term repeat work that has been highly successful for the shop.
Across the country, NonStop Signs, based in Los Angeles, went to the local universities to see about wrapping their practice fields, when COO Cole Canedy notes that he saw a bigger opportunity. “A lot of schools were having trouble finding the right printers,” he says. “They were getting bad quality, or their vendors were being flaky at the last minute. So we reached out to a lot of different schools to let them know about our services.”
For all three businesses, just getting a foot in the door wasn’t enough. From there, they had to work to build trust with those customers and find innovative ways to offer unique products and services while staying within a school’s strict budget.
Innovative Solutions Abound
One way to build a business in the education vertical is to find products and solutions for schools that go beyond what they think they need. Laniak says one of the more successful projects they started was to work with schools to produce new banners each year with pictures of the student athletes for each team. Digital technology allows Excelsus Solutions to cost-effectively produce new ones for each season or year, and then they offer personalized banners to the parents of those athletes, with the school logo and their student’s picture, giving them a second revenue stream with the same graphics.
Another unique job that Excelsus Solutions tackled, says Laniak, was a numbering program in conjunction with the local fire department. Every single exit in the school, he says, was labeled with a specific number. “The unique thing was that it had to go on a variety of surfaces,” he says, “some on brick, textured metal, glass, etc. And it all had to be reflective so it could be seen in an emergency.”
At Cushing, Color Production Supervisor Julia Kaufman notes that window graphics and championship banners are both common and popular applications, but the most unique job they’ve done was a set of stair graphics for a local high school. “They list each department name — such as manufacturing and information technology — and there is a series of graphics that show a world map! Not only do the graphics look great, they are an interesting application and create a unique experience for students, faculty and prospectives,” she notes.
At NonStop Signs, the most common application are the banners and wraps for the sports stadiums, says Canedy, but they recently had an unusual request of their own. “We recently had a high school ask for custom made entrance rugs,” he notes. “We did several of them.” He also notes that they recently did a custom vinyl installation for the basketball court of a local school as well, giving them a branded mural that helped the school stand out.
The takeway for PSPs? That the proverbial sky truly is the limit when it comes to creative applications. In many cases, schools don’t necessarily know what wide-format or digital technologies can do, so they don’t know to ask for some of these products. But printers who can come to the table with a range of ideas stand a far better chance of winning the business. Even if the idea is rejected at first, keep coming up with new options, and don’t be afraid to be persistent.
Overcoming the Educational Challenges
It’s not all apples and sharpened pencils, however. Winning work in the educational vertical — and keeping it — does have a few unique obstacles that PSPs should be prepared for.
The biggest hurdle will likely be the budget, with Laniak noting that not only do schools have a fixed amount they can spend on graphics projects, they also often have more than one stakeholder who needs to give approvals.
He notes that for his shop’s team banners, for example, they not only have to go through school approvals to ensure things such as logos, slogans and other content are appropriate, they also have to get the parents involved, as the photos used are of minor student athletes. One way they have streamlined the process is to sell the banners directly to the school, who then sells the personalized banners of the students to the parents, allowing the school to earn a slight markup and make a bit of their money back, while ensuring everyone is happy with the end results.
Another challenge PSPs should be prepared for, Canedy notes, is the need to have all of the shop’s personnel vetted. “It’s pretty extensive to work with the school,” he says. “We had to have whole team background checked, and we have to have assorted licenses [to continue working with them.]”
However, he notes, they enjoy working with the schools, so they are willing to take those extra steps to ensure they are compliant with the school policies.
However, notes Kaufman, the extra work is worth it, as schools are often integral parts of their communities. “Many schools care about their brand and community. Some involve boosters and school supporters for financial support and to bring a project to fruition. School spirit is not going anywhere — with communities rallying around their schools and students, it can lead to repeat work.”
“Every school is a different project,” says Laniak, noting that he believes the benefits far outweigh the challenges, as well. “There is always a different curve, different logos, different graphics and we’re helping the community. We’re supporting the local schools, and they’re supporting a local business.”
One final piece of advice Canedy offers for PSPs looking to start building those relationships is to start with school calendars, where they list all their upcoming events and projects for the year. That, he notes, is a great place to start finding ideas, and seeing which departments to target first. Athletic directors are a great starting point, but don’t be afraid to try to build relationships with several departments within a school at the same time. They do talk to each other, and with time, that effort will pay off with regular, recurring work that not only adds to the bottom line, but also helps support your local community.