Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Laying the Groundwork for a Better Brand

By Danielle Avenoso / Senior Brand Strategist & Account Manager, NJ Advertising Agency Graphic D-Signs

The Realities of the Competitive Landscape
Fortune 500 companies have the luxury of multi-million dollar advertising budgets. They are able to invest dedicated manpower and finances into creating brands on a national level—where the scope of work is nearly limitless and the target market spans from coast to coast. They have dedicated, renowned agencies and marketing departments who coordinate, manage and create their brands. So how can small-sized companies possibly compete with these well-known brands and steal a share of the market to call their own? How can small companies get a big bang for their buck and ensure that their budget stretches as far as possible? How? Well, that's simple… the answer lies in the foundation.

Importance of a Foundation
Vehicle Graphics for Tim's Air Conditioning & Heating
located in San Diego, CA
The foundation of your home is quite literally the base of the house and is the most important structural part. Since it provides the fundamental stability for the future of the house, it is pertinent to lay the foundation correctly or it can be the demise of the house in years to come. The cornerstones behind the foundation are simple—make it sturdy and make it strong. Otherwise, if not properly laid, the entire house structure will be unstable and can collapse.

Similar to a well-built house, the foundation of a company is essential to its longevity and success. This foundation takes on the form of branding through an image or identity, which helps manage the perception of a company and differentiate it from its competitors. Powerful and captivating brands create an instantly recognizable, unique, professional image that can help catapult the company to success.

Essentially, strong branding can create the perception that the company employs hundreds of workers and has a net worth nearing ten million dollars; when in actuality, the company only employs ten workers and has a net worth just nearing one million dollars. Still, the consumer doesn’t know this reality and thinks the company is large, credible and professional because of the image it portrays through branding.

Investing in a Foundation
As indicated, a well-laid foundation is unquestionably essential for a house. As such, experts suggest hiring an engineer or a general contractor for this purpose. Though it will cost a little more money upfront, it will be well worth it in the long run. A strong and well-laid foundation is the best investment you can make, and in this case, quality, attention to detail and experience make all the difference.

Likewise, quality, attention to detail and experience also play critical roles in creating a brand. Strong brand identity stimulates recognition, intensifies differentiation and creates value so it is essential to invest intelligently in the creation of a brand. Don’t rely on your average Joe Schmoe or nephew to strategically develop your brand—as I can promise that your company’s success will be directly impacted. And by no means for the better. Instead, invest in an agency that specializes in this line of advertising. After all, would you entrust your 14-year-old nephew to lay the foundation for your home? I certainly don’t think so.

 “Image and perception help drive value; without an image there is no perception.”    
--Scott M. Davis, Brand Asset Management

Sustaining a Foundation
Branding for Aspire IRB
Once the foundation of your home is laid, it is still necessary and important to routinely check it, as small cracks can cause major problems in the future. Likewise, every so often your brand may need a facelift to remain relevant in the minds of your consumers. Perhaps, the brand is looking a bit antiquated and needs to be revitalized; or the marketplace has become saturated and you are no longer positioned in the white space; or you are losing relevancy with your niche market. Whatever the reason, preservation is a must. Time can be detrimental not only to a brand image, but also to the house foundation.

And while success in spite of a poor brand is admirable, it also has a tendency to lull the business owner into a false sense of security. Past success is not a valid reason to perpetuate a poor brand. Imagine an even greater success for your business in the future, with the proper branding in place.

The Realities of Budget Constraints
Given these economic times and struggles, we understand the importance of a budget and making that budget work hard for you, and not vice versa. And we understand the need for a website and collateral pieces to support your communication strategy. However, we don’t understand why so many clients want to put the cart before the horse and do the website and collateral pieces prior to creating the brand/logo. If you don’t have a strong brand, why invest in other advertising elements? Would you put up the slabs and framing prior to laying the foundation of a home?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

To Flash or Not to Flash

What is Flash Anyway?

First off... let's cover what flash actually is. According to Wikipedia - "Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) is a multimedia platform used to add animation, video, and interactivity to Web pages. Flash is frequently used for advertisements and games. More recently, it has been positioned as a tool for "Rich Internet Applications" ("RIAs")." If you're still not sure check out a few of our sites where we use it. Insectropolis, Gonzalez Insurance and Green Meadows all use Adobe Flash technology to add sound, movement and interactivity.

Why Flash is Good

There is no doubt that this technology adds beauty and appeal to a website. It can be pre-loaded so that you're not waiting on multiple images to appear thus giving it a clean seamless delivery. One can insert music and sound, video, animation within one compact swf file - all things that users have come to expect from leading edge sites.

The other great advantage of flash is using your prime space on a website more effectively. We have traditionally always tried to use the area below the nav on our client's site to communicate all the high points of their company. Without scrolling, a user should get the gyst of what the company does in a few frames of the flash and be able to navigate to relevant information from within the animation.

Why Flash is Bad

The main complaint about flash used to be it's reliance on higher bandwidth connections. Now that the number of people with access to high speed internet connections has increased it's not much of an issue anymore. The larger point to consider is that people are also moving toward viewing websites on mobile devices more. Apple's "iphone" seems to dominate the market especially with users who are intent on viewing lots of rich online material. The problem? Iphones don't "see" flash. They completely ignore it. We need not elaborate on the ways this could be bad for you if your website has crucial information embedded into the flash.

The Solution?

It's really a question of the typical user your website draws. For some, 95% of your clientel will be looking at your site from their office desk or at night on their home computers. Others may be businesses who rely on last minute inquiries and a site compatible with iphones could make or break the person's connection with you. The good news is it isn't ALL or NOTHING. There currently is one way to have your cake and eat it too.

Enter "Jquery".  J query is a programming language which in tandem with css can be used to creative simple animations and can do a fairly good job of mimicking fades and slide transitions in graphics. When we launched our brand new site we opted to go with  this method below our navbar as opposed to flash. Although we sacrificed some of the more complex animations we've had in previous versions it means we'll be viewable to all devices - and to us that was important.

Do Your Research and Discuss it With Us

There is no automatically "right" answer when it comes to this issue. When large fortune500 websites have opted to keep flash technology on their sites. When you get ready to do your website with us, talk to your typical clientele. Find out how likely someone looking for you on the web would be to find you on an i phone. Tell us your findings and we'll help you decide which technology would suit you better.

Do your reading. Articles on Wired like this do a great job of explaining Apple's motives behind excluding flash and you come to your own conclusions about whether they will change strategies and allow it on their devices in the future.

Monday, June 7, 2010

7 Tips to Taking Better Photos of Landscaping Jobs

By Sarah Neal / Senior Web Designer & Professional Photographer

Graphic D-Signs Inc. is famous for our landscaping marketing. Over the years we've had thousands of photos submitted to us of landscape jobs to use in websites and brochures. Most of the photos are of stunning water features, rolling grass and carefully designed stonework... but the photos clearly don't do justice to the work a lot of the time. Since we see the same simple correctable errors in many of the photos, we thought we'd show you how we can take better photos of landscaping jobs when you don't have money for a pro. With a few simple adjustments in how you take photos, you can be taking magazine worthy photos in no time!

Number 1: Tidy up and Clear the Clutter
This rule is the most simple but most often overlooked. The very first thing you should do when you arrive to photograph a job is ensure that there are no visible bags of trash, exposed bright orange extension cords, hose pipes, trash containers, yard debris... etc. laying in sight of your photo. Also if possible have owners move vehicles into the street and close all the garage doors. Also if you're shooting a deck or patio with chairs make sure they're set up nicely around the tables and that there aren't pool toys visible unless you've specifically placed them in the pool for color.

Number 2: Choose Good Lighting
There are three hospitable lighting situations. Very early morning, late afternoon/evening or overcast days. Midday sunny pictures never turn out well. Overhead sun casts lots of ugly shadows and washes colors out. You want those warm rays that are only available in the late afternoon or early morning or the soft even light that is there throughout an overcast day. If you have no choice BUT to use midday light, it's often good to turn on your flash which will fill in the shadows. Taking photos just before dark is also an excellent idea. Turn your camera to it's landscape setting and it'll automatically forfit using the flash. The photo will have a long shutter speed so USE a tripod. Turn the houses lights on for this effect. This is probably the best way to shoot water features as you'll get that long water streaming effect.

Above: Warm late afternoon sun is flattering to landscapes

Above: Overcast days provide nice even light and eliminate
long distracting shadows from structures. Clouds provide a bit of drama too!

Number 3: Straighten the Horizon
Professional photographers always look for the structural lines or horizon line to be parallel with the top/bottom edge of the photos. Especially when you're photographing the house itself it's important to obey this rule.

Number 4: Choose Creative Angles
When you're shooting your landscape it's good to figure out what features you most want to highlight and find the best way to get that into the picture. When I shoot landscapes I often get down on my belly (that's right... I look ridiculous) and shoot with the ground filling the bottom two thirds of my frame. Sometimes it's worth asking the client if you can get up to their second story window to photograph your landscape from above. There is always more than one way of looking at the same scene and it's worth experimenting to find what works best.

Taking photos from ground level can highlight features like rock work
and flowers that would otherwise get lost in the image.

Number 5: Finishing Touches
Rake leaves. Mow the lawn. Seriously... I can't tell you how many people have photos on their websites of yards that have great features but the maintenance is not done. Even if owners don't opt to pay for maintenance it's well worth your while to send a crew out prior to doing photos to get things cleaned up. Your average consumer totally doesn't "get" that you only did that retaining wall and you're not responsible for yard maintenance. They think you did the whole landscape and it's maintenance and when IT looks shabby, YOU look shabby. Another trip I've passed on is to hose down stones and brick work. It brings out colors and gives it a wet slick look that really compliments the landscape. This includes water features and the edge of pools!

Above: Wetting down stone work brings out vibrant colors

Number 6: In Camera Settings and Post Production
It's worth reading your camera manual on how to adjust white balance settings. Putting your camera on "cloudy" or "sunny" will achieve MUCH better color and results. If you don't feel like messing with it, you can buy cost effective photo editing software like Photoshop Elements which you can use to increase saturation or contrast. WARNING: Don't overdo it. Over saturation or cheesy boxed photo effects like spot color or Gaussian blurs DO NOT improve photos. Though there are limited occasions where they work, they usually just make your photos look cheap and not credible. If you can manage the highlights/shadows with your software it's always a good idea to slightly lighten shadows to bright out the details lost in dark parts of your photo. If you're not sure how to do post-processing, ask us - we're able to do limited digital improvements to your photos when we're posting them to your gallery.

Number 7: If You Can Afford it, Hire a Pro
I think really great results are achievable if you follow these steps. The fact of the matter is though, you're an amazing landscaper - and 9 times out of 10 - not an amazing photographer. It's worth it IF you can afford it to hire someone to do things right. You can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $3000 to get it done right depending on how many sites you're having photographed. Shop around and make sure you see lots of samples of other photos you LOVE by the photographer you pick. AND REMEMBER: just because they take spectacular portraits doesn't mean they know how to shoot landscapes. You need to see samples of their architecture or landscape photography. Here are a few links to sites we've designed that hired a pro... we think the results were worth the investment! True North Landscaping, Green Meadows Landscaping, Let It Grow Inc., G.A. Landscaping Design, Terracare Landscaping

So there you have it! Happy Clicking people!