Building Your Sign, ID & Personalization Markets

Copyright © 2013 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2013, Volume 39, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
This unique sign was custom made using several different materials and processes. Photo courtesy of Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH.

   According to a recent reader survey conducted by EJ, the product category of signage/nameplates/badges has one of the strongest footholds in the industry. The majority of the readers who responded to the survey indicated that this product category is either a stable or a growing part of their businesses. And when you think about it, the potential customers for these types of products are virtually limitless—who doesn’t need signage and ID products at one time or another? Just the category of ID products alone touches practically every person on earth when you think about all of the remarkable gift and personalized merchandise from which to choose.
   Do you want to build your signage and ID business even more? One of the best ways to do this is by branching out into niche markets—and there are hundreds of niche markets that you can cater to. With a little creativity, you can actually develop new markets or at least capture unique markets that can drive some extremely profitable business your way.
   One really easy way to create new niche markets is to produce new and unique products, and one way to do that is by combining two or more processes that you already have in your shop to make a single product. Of course, other shops can copy your efforts but the truth is, very few will. This opens the door for you to do “something different” (ever hear that from a customer?) and something that the customer will more likely have to come back to you to get—and that can help you develop your own little market niches.
   A simple example of combining two processes to make a single product is an ADA sign. To meet the newest ADA compliance guidelines, the tactile symbol and lettering is supposed to have a straight or 90 degree edge. This is best accomplished by cutting the tactile portion of the sign with a laser engraver. The Grade II Braille, however, must have rounded tops and be a prescribed distance above the substrate. This can be best accomplished using the Raster dot method, which is done using a rotary engraving machine. Braille can be engraved using a laser engraver just as the tactile portion can be completed with a rotary engraver, but the best results are often achieved by using both processes as described to make a single product.

You can create full-color images on ceramic to create products such as this memorial plaque. Photo courtesy of Digital Ceramic Technologies, Glendale, AZ.

   Another example of combining processes to develop a niche market for your business involves embroidery and sublimation. Most people will agree that embroidery is a preferred method for personalizing a fabric item, whether it’s a shirt, hat, tote bag or similar item. There is just something very classy about an embroidered product that people like. The problem is, embroidery can be very expensive and time consuming. Logos have to be digitized, multiple thread colors have to be used, etc. By combining the two methods, the entire embroidery portion can be completed with a single color thread, the digitizing is much simpler and the whole process takes far less time. In a nutshell, the basic logo or design is embroidered on the product with white polyester thread and then the embroidered design is sublimated to provide the color. A webinar of how this is done can be pulled up on the Sawgrass Technology website at
   So what are some other examples of niche markets you can create yourself? I have mentioned ADA signage and embroidered/sublimation branding. What else is there?
New Twists on Signage
   If you can take an “old” product and give it a “new” twist, you are on your way to developing a new niche market.
   For example, a new engraving stock on the market from PDU (South El Monte, CA) is AcrylaThins. This non-flexible material is 1/32" thick and features a durable, colored surface applied onto a stable black substrate material that is similar to Masonite. The AcrylaThin material is available in a variety of colors, including some wood veneers. There is an incredible variety of uses for this material in the interior signage realm alone—including both ADA-compliant and non-ADA signage. The natural appearance and the highly scratch-resistant surface is well-suited for sign-
age. The material can be used as a background for signage, it can be cut to create appliques or multiple sheets can be mixed by cutting out portions of one color and plugging it into another “puzzle” style. You can add to this a variety of other materials such as engraving plastics, metals or acrylics. Interior signs don’t have to be drab and boring, and using this material you are sure to find some new customers who are looking for something completely different!
   Another way to create unique signage that might appeal to a brand new set of customers is by using wood products, such as Laser Wood Laminates from LaserBits (Phoenix, AZ). Laser Jump Start (Nampa, ID) also offers a 1/8" wood laminate with a different type of wood on each side. Can wood be used to create ADA signage? Absolutely. Just watch your contrast and material thicknesses to insure they conform to the ADA specifications.
   Outdoor signage is an area with nearly limitless niche market possibilities. All of the major engraving plastic manufacturers make outdoor weatherable and UV-stable acrylic-based materials that are said to last about two years without degrading and/or fading (depending on the material’s properties). The potential for customers is just about everywhere you look: zoos, botanical gardens, parks, playgrounds, amusement parks and more. If you start to think outside the box a little more, you’ll realize nearly endless possibilities. For example, ground stake signs can be used to identify trees and plants along a trail or used on lawns to indicate pesticide has been applied. Memorial and commemorative signs can be used everywhere, e.g. in a “living forest” (This tree is planted in memory of…) and in parks and other public areas (This bench was given by…). There’s also a big market for house, cottage and gate signs, and even “event” signs. One company sells wedding signs that can be mounted on a post to direct guests to a wedding ceremony or reception. If you start thinking about niche markets like this, the possibilities are endless.

ADA signage can be interesting and different, and still comply with the sign regulations. Photo courtesy of Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ. Creating rhinestone designs is easy and can result in highly salable products. Photo courtesy of Vision Engraving & Routing Systems.

      If you are looking for exterior signs made of metal, you have options as well. For example, Horizons ISG (Cleveland, OH) manufactures DuraBlack which is a laser engravable metal that can be used outdoors without the need for a chemical pretreatment or protective topcoat. According to Horizons ISG, the material is engineered for use in outdoor, marine, abrasive, chemical and high-temperature operating environments. The material is composed of a multi-level coating on an anodized aluminum base layer and can be marked with a CO2 laser.
      There is also a new process available called ceramic art that allows you to print on ceramic products to create a UV-stable product that lasts indefinitely outdoors without fading, making it ideal for applications such as exterior signs. The process involves printing the color image on special transfer paper using a modified Ricoh printer and special ceramic toners, and then fusing that image to the ceramic in a kiln. These images are so stable, even in full sunlight, that this process is being used to personalize tombstones. Two companies that offer the equipment or that will do the work for you include Digital Ceramic Technologies (Glendale, AZ) and Enduring Images (Golden, CO). Watch for more about this process in a future article.
Make it POP!
      Another area in the sign industry with incredible niche market opportunities involves point-of-purchase (POP) signs and nameplates. You can quickly, easily and inexpensively engrave plastic POP signs which can be used just about anywhere. Just a few examples include: fudge, candy and ice cream shops (labeling the flavors); buffet restaurants (try our new…); retail stores (buy one get one free, sale); brand name/logo nameplates that can used anywhere, such as “Titleist” in a golf pro shop or “Nike” in a footwear store, etc.
Woof! Meow! And More!
      Enough about signs. Let’s look at something warm and cuddly, like pets. The pet market in the United States is absolutely huge. Of course, every Fido needs a dog tag, but is that where the market stops? Certainly not! You can buy everything imaginable for your pets and many people do. And note, too, that the term “pets” includes everything from horses to dogs and cats to exotic animals like snakes. My kids went through a dog, rabbit, mouse, gerbil, hamster, hermit crab and fish—lots of fish that kept eating each other! The ground around a little sour apple tree in our backyard looks like Grassy Hill Cemetery where we had a burial service for each critter as it passed on.
      Because pets are so much a part of our families, it makes a perfect market for any personalized pet product imaginable: memorial plaques, urns, food dishes, toys, toy boxes, leashes, collars, cage tags, warning signs for the yard, garments, costumes, stall signs and absolutely anything a picture can be put on using sublimation, laser engraving, sandblasting or a framed photograph.
      The products that people will buy for pets are endless and, thus, so are your potential customers. Consider a laser engraved base with a sublimated photo of a pet, a shirt with the photo sublimated or embroidered (or both) on it, a rubber stamp with a return address and, of course, a picture of a pet or a ceramic food dish sublimated in full color. Mats to put under food and water dishes can be imprinted and little doggie outfits can be embroidered with a matching sublimated collar and leash. Of course, we don’t want to forget the pet tag that can be sublimated or engraved for dogs, cats, horses, etc. You can also engrave ear tags used for identifying livestock including pigs, cows, sheep, etc.

Making name badges out of wood is one little twist that you can do to offer your customers something different. Photo courtesy of LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ.

Keeping the Funeral Industry Alive
   There is great potential for personalized products and services in the funeral industry that you can tap into.
   For example, why not offer laminated obituaries out of a home-based business or add the service to your existing business? True, companies have been doing these for years but why shouldn’t you join in? Being local is a great way to please community funeral homes because people can order extras and get them so quickly. Just buy a copy of your local papers (in some cases, you can use the Internet) and copy each obit. After laminating it and adding a little ribbon for decoration, drop one off for every family who has a death as a free gift from the funeral home to their client. Along with the freebie, include an order blank for ordering more.
   While you are at it, offer other personalized products such as an engraved urn and a commemorative plaque with one of a dozen sayings on it and the deceased person’s name and photos. Some communities are growing a tradition of everyone who attends the funeral (at least close friends) wearing a T-shirt with the person’s picture on it. Sublimation or heat transfer is ideal for this market! For a more subdued look, consider laser engraving polyester shirts like those made by Vapor or making 2" buttons people can wear to honor the deceased. These can be done using sublimation or a button badge-making system such as those sold by Badge-a-Minit (Oglesby, IL).
   Another funeral product—and one that has the potential to bring a hefty profit—is a photograph for the gravestone. Some businesses have been sublimating photographic images on .05" metal for marker posts for years. Although these do fade over a period of 12-18 months, they typically offer them in sets of three so the loved ones can exchange the image when they begin to fade. As mentioned earlier, the ceramic art process actually allows you to make a ceramic disk with a color image that will not fade—ever! You can also laser engrave a photograph onto a shaped piece of granite (square, oval, heart, etc.), which can then be inlaid into the headstone or even engrave the headstone itself if you have a machine with that capacity.
   Another way to develop niche markets for your business is to take a standard product and start thinking about what other markets you can sell it to.
   Stemware, for example, is a lucrative market and one that can be expanded into many different directions. I was recently in a local restaurant and noticed that all of their stemware was sandcarved with the restaurant’s logo. Although those particular pieces were sandcarved, it could easily be done with a laser or rotary machine as well.
   If you don’t have the capability to engrave stemware in-house, consider jobbing it out. There is no rule saying you have to do everything yourself. A number of companies, such as The Allen Company in Blanchester, OH, personalize all kinds of drinkware for the wholesale market. If you want to do the work yourself, a great source for stemware is Marck & Associates (Toledo, OH) or you might try a local restaurant supplier in your area. I buy a lot of my stemware from Target.
   While you are thinking about selling stemware, don’t forget the wedding market. There are huge opportunities here and you can be part of it. Inexpensive stemware pieces that cost you as little as $1 each can sell for up to $25 engraved while higher-end stemware can easily sell for $100 when personalized. Add a keepsake box that is engraved and you can easily charge $150-$175 and people will pay it. And don’t just think about glassware for the bride and groom to toast with. People purchase personalized glassware as wedding party gifts and as gifts for the bride and groom. And with today’s ever-elaborate wedding celebrations, personalized glassware is even being purchased for use as wedding favors for guests and for bachelor/bachelorette party mementoes (shot glasses, wine glasses).
Selling Ads
   Annual sales of ad specialties in 2012 were reportedly up 5.2% from 2011, reaching a whopping 19.4 billion (according to the Advertising Specialty Institute). Wow! The potential for niche markets in this industry is huge!
   Of course, business operators in our industry need to carefully consider whether or not to become involved with selling promotional products. Some love it, some hate it. Either way, consider the fact that you can offer a service that most ad specialty dealers would love to have—the ability to personalize a small quantity of promotional items for that special customer or a local source that a larger distributor can’t turn around fast enough and/or do it for a reasonable price. This market brings with it some interesting challenges but with a little creativity, you can usually find a way. I have engraved or otherwise marked everything from toothbrushes to key chains that whistle Dixie for businesses, schools and organizations in my area.

AcrylaThins is a new laserable material from PDU, South El Monte, CA, that has an attractive, distinctive look that fits well with many signage and ID applications.

Bring On the Bling!
  Here’s another unique product that can open up a niche market for your business: rhinestone garments. Products adorned with rhinestones are a hidden goldmine for both people and pets. If you have a laser engraver, a rotary engraving machine or a vinyl cutter, you have the equipment you need to add rhinestones to almost any kind of fabric. Mix these with sublimated images for stunning, yet inexpensively created products that can yield huge profits. For example, rather than doing a multi-colored rhinestone image on a shirt, sublimate the image and just add some rhinestones around the edges to give it sparkle or select a section of the image to rhinestone to make a truly unique product.
  For pets, try rhinestoning a bandana, such as those made by Vapor, with a name or custom design. These are available through most sublimation suppliers (Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, carries pet bandanas) and owners love them. Paramount Services (Hollywood, FL) offers a pet “T-shirt” that is sublimatable and that can have rhinestones added to it, in addition to bandanas and other items. To finish the job, add a pet tag. Although there are lots of sublimatable or engravable pet tags, offers an engravable one with rhinestones to match whatever you produce!
Creating Niches for Badges
  As I mentioned before, one good way to create your own unique niche markets is to take a “standard” product and give it new life. This will lead you to a unique set of customers who know that you are one of the few (if not the only) businesses that can supply that product for them.
  Take, for example, the ordinary name badge. Just about any process (or combination thereof) can be used to create unique, custom designs. Millions are sold each year, and designs vary from single rotary engraved badges to laser engraved badges to sublimated full-color badges to metal badges to badges that combine a variety of processes including paper, plastic, wood, acrylic, metal and metallic films. Some are made of brass or nickel or even gold plated. Others are cut into custom shapes while others are simple rectangles. I have some that have an electronic message board built in.
  There are even badge-making “systems” available that make creating attractive, custom name badges for anyone easy. For example, badgetec GmbH (Miami, FL) has developed a complete line of badge components that are “modular” and can be interchanged for a wide variety of mix-and-match possibilities. Transparent front panels can be printed or used to protect printed inserts. There are also several sizes and styles of badge holders in the line that can be engraved or printed with additional information, in addition to a variety of badge fasteners.
  For the most part, badges are inexpensive to make and carry an excellent profit margin. What you want to do as a dealer to develop a niche market for these products is design a custom badge that really resonates “custom” to your client, one that you can make lots of money on and one your competition can’t easily duplicate. Mixing processes is a great way to accomplish this. For example, many customers like a full-color badge. That’s easy—sublimation. But go one step further. Somewhere in the design, add something that is metallic gold. This can’t be done with sublimation and appliqués won’t hold up with heavy use. Instead, make the badge from fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) and sublimate it as usual. Leave a space for the user to write in his or her name with a Sharpie pen. Now, laser a star or other small design in the face of the badge just deep enough to hold paint and paint fill the area with metallic gold paint. Simple, fast and inexpensive. Granted, it does add a couple of steps but it makes the badge more attractive and makes the badge far more difficult for your competition to copy.
  Another way to custom work a badge is to laser cut and engrave a wood badge and then add embellishments like rhinestones, a metallic film applique or a bit of AcrylaThins for contrast.

Metalgraph Plus engraving material features a deep brush pattern with a metal finish and is designed for exterior environments. Photo courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH.

A “Uniform” Advantage
   Let’s talk about business uniforms. This is an area our industry usually doesn’t pay much attention to, but perhaps we should. Some dealers sell thousands of sports uniforms and related items, but what about uniforms for small businesses like ours? There is definitely a niche market here. I know I’m stepping on toes here, but some of the shops I have gone into through the years look like they are being run by homeless people rather than highly skilled professionals. In any case, small businesses can, and should in my opinion, dress professionally to advertise their business both in and out of the shop. You might be surprised what happens when you look good and let people know who you are. For instance, I once gave a name badge to a sign salesman. Immediately after I gave him the badge, he went to lunch. While paying his bill, the owner of the restaurant saw his badge and wound up placing a $10,000 order with him.
   We can look the part and not only dress ourselves, but sell the products we use to other small businesses as well. In the realm of sublimation, we have lab coats, T-shirts, long sleeve T-shirts, polo shirts and a number of “layered” shirts for the ladies. We also have ball caps that look nice in some businesses. If you can’t find what you want from sublimation suppliers, check the Internet. Thousands of products are available that will sublimate very nicely. They just have to be light colored and 100% synthetic material. If you work with traditional heat transfers, you may be able to even print on dark colors. Jackets, vests, pullovers, even socks can be sublimated so long as they are synthetic. Of course, some synthetic materials work better than others so always order one for testing before investing a lot of money, but I have had good luck doing this—even with big brands like London Fog. Note that some product manufacturers will name their fabric something other than polyester even if it truly is polyester. Injinji, for instance, refers to the synthetic material used in its toe socks as “CoolMax.” Generally, anything they call “high performance” or “micro” fiber is usually a form of Polyester and will accept sublimation.
   Those with embroidery machines can buy almost anything imaginable from the open market and embroider it—right down to tennis shoes! By the way, did you know you can laser engrave tennis shoes? You can. You can also laser engrave blue jeans and other fabric items! Check the Epilog Laser (Golden, CO) website or read “Laser Engraving & Cutting Fabric” in the May 11 issue of EJ for more information.
   Combining the processes, I can see a well-dressed salesperson wearing a sublimated polo shirt with rhinestones in the design, a London Fog jacket for brisk weather, a logo on the back pocket of his or her slacks and, especially for her, custom socks with the company logo. Oh, don’t forget the laser engraved or embroidered canvas tennis shoes and ball cap. Add to that a personalized, laser engraved ink pen, name badge, a stack of laser engraved or full-color business cards and perhaps a temporary tattoo on the face and you have someone who is really ready to do business. OK, maybe that is a bit much but the point is, we should look like we mean business and one of the best ways to do that is to dress the part. If your staff sets the example, your customers will follow and when they do, you’ll have your own profitable niche market.

Horizons ISG, Cleveland, OH, manufactures DuraBlack, a laser engravable, exterior grade metal that can be used for a variety of signage and ID applications, such as this nameplate for a seat back in a stadium. Promotional products can be a huge profit generator for a business capable of producing small runs. Photo courtesy of Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT.


   I’ve presented a variety of ideas here, including combining processes to create unique products, finding new avenues for old products, etc. What these concepts are intended to illustrate is how easy it is to create your own niche markets—be it in the realm of signs and nameplates, clothing, pet items or even the funeral industry. In the flurry of trying to get orders out on time, keeping inventory on hand and all the other tasks we are burdened with from day to day, it is difficult to focus on anything else, but for a business to grow, someone has to keep a vision—always looking at what is next and where the company can go from here.
   What if your biggest selling product suddenly went the way of the buggy whip? Could you survive? It can happen. Having a pocket full of products and possible markets you can capitalize on is never a bad thing. Adding these potential markets strategically as your company grows is even better.
   Personally, I like niche markets because they are usually so small or concise that they are under the big boys’ radar—at least until I start making money with them. By then, it is usually too late for anyone else to get a foothold. I would much rather avoid competing and doing the same thing everyone else is doing and find my own little corner of the market where I can set my own prices, develop my own customer base and pretty much be left alone to make money.
   Whatever your preference, these markets can be great money makers for your business that are bound to make your business grow!




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