Along with options like backlit in-shop displays under soft signage category, flags & banners are rapidly emerging as one of the popular advertising mediums for drawing attention of prospective customers.
Soft signage, especially flags & banners, is a non-traditional textile application but is evolving with each passing day. This mostly because these media offer extreme customisation suiting to the needs of a particular business and thus helping the later in fortifying the marketing and sales process. In short, it brings complete freedom to brands for conceptualising and creating designs perfectly in line with company’s objective.
A wide variety of advertising flags like teardrop flags, feather flags, rectangle flags, swooper flags, as well as giant flags can be seen in different sizes meeting the specific advertising needs of the respective businesses. What’s more, the flags and banners suppliers do provide a large variety of pre-made advertising flags to choose from keeping in mind the occasion or the purpose which may be a grand opening, special event, product launch, etc.
It won’t be right to write that we Indians have truly been influenced with the global trend of soft signage, but it would be more appropriate to mention that the shift has been flagged off. However, industry experts still believe that it’s too early to speak about the shape of the Indian soft signage industry’s future as it is still at a nascent stage contributing only a meagre around 2 – 5% to the total signage printing.
When it comes to soft signage, banner & flags tops the list, but it is yet to pick up the pace in India. This is mostly because of the absence of appropriate media followed by the compatible printing technology. As an inexpensive and effective way to promote a brand/cause, flags are generally used for delivering customised messages. The trend is not new here, but it is awaiting the needed push.
To explore the current scenario, we, at Sign & POP world, contacted a couple of technology suppliers along with few PSPs who took the initiative towards changing the curves of the country’s signage industry.
Fabric – The Green Media
It is no surprise that the printers’ fraternity unanimously believes that shift towards fabric is inevitable as it is the most viable option to replace flex. In the last few years, the drive towards Green media is so much so that everyone amongst the printing family is seemingly convinced for the change, starting from south – the region that experienced the country’s first ever ban on the use of flex where it was also implemented for maintaining the beauty of the land.
The term Green or eco-friendly is so well attached to fabric that flex manufacturers and suppliers are trying hard to prove the eco-friendliness and recyclable attributes of flex with the help of recent research that was done by IIT – one of the most reputed institutes in the country. This is despite various visible limitations that fabric is facing that include its availability and cost competitiveness.
Notably, printer manufacturers are also pushing for the cause following the feedback that they gathered from international exhibitions like Fespa-Germany, SGI–Dubai, APPP Expo–Shanghai, etc. where the trend is seemingly towards fabric.
The Suppliers’ Soft World
Slowly but steadily, fabric is making its groove in the country’s signage industry. From zero to 5%, and now to 10% is nothing but the testimonial of its future. According to Vir Vikram Bhatia, Managing Director, Apsom Technologies Pvt. Ltd., “The country’s signage market is growing and developing at a faster pace. More so, it is expanding in many virgin areas giving a boost to overall signage industry in India. Our estimation is that year on year it is growing by 20% to 25% which is exceptionally good, looking at various other industrial sectors. However, when it is about flex and soft signage, still it is ruled over by flex, and estimation from industry sources implicates that latter is somewhere around 10% to 20% where fabric or other eco-friendly solution is used.”
Apsom Technologies has created an indisputable niche in India’s digital printing industry and has incessantly been playing an important role in the growth of country’s visual communication industry for more than two decades. Having established a strong presence across the country, the company is known for its technology solutions that it offers to meet and exceed customer expectations, right from simple scanning to tricky colour matching, from substrate selection to picking the right film for lamination.
Smarth Bansal, DGM-Product/Brand, ColorJet India Ltd., feels that the soft signage market is still at a nascent stage and accounts only about 5% of the country’s total signage market. But the future is brighter. “The demand for soft signage is coming up faster as expected. Fabric is the future of signage industry. Though the move is prevalent across the European and other developed countries, it will take a few more years to flourish here in India. Flex is something that everybody is doing. And, people want to see what different are we coming up with in terms of technological innovations,” he asserts.
ColorJet India Ltd., the largest manufacturer of digital inkjet printers in India, markets its products in 14 countries worldwide. Founded in 2004, the company maintains its operations via two manufacturing facilities and sales offices spread across seven countries, which include India, China, Bangladesh, UAE and Sri Lanka. To-date, ColorJet has installed and implemented over 4,000 of its printing solutions and products across 315 cities around the world backed by a strong 278 member team, of which almost 100 are in technical related functions.
Speaking about the trends and driving factors, Bhatia says, “Fabric printing or rather soft signage printing is not limited to UV technology but has been witnessing high-level of experimentations as the PSPs are successfully using eco-solvent and direct sublimation inks as well for the purpose. Actually there are many places where flex is banned or restricted to use, and various MNCs and corporates are insisting upon using eco-friendly material as part of their CSR. In the meantime, the level of awareness about the environmental issues is continuously on the surge be it the government, corporates or the end-customers. They are concerned about how to overcome the same. Soft signage provides a significant solution in this case.”
Adding variety, Bansal says, “Considering the fact that soft signage is easy to use, sustainable and aesthetically aligned, retail sector is fast switching towards it. Also, the government is banning PVC material in a few states, which in turn, is pushing brand managers and visual merchandisers to switch towards soft signage, which is most suitable for a large range of signage applications, such as stadium banners, displays, signage, backdrops, trade show graphics, retail store décor elements, etc.” He feels that the market for soft signage has started picking up and soon the scenario of flex will be changed. “Other than India, we have our soft signage solutions in countries like Thailand, Dubai, Australia, Spain and Italy. We have seen that PSPs who are into soft signage are only focusing on this vertical because of higher return and niche market.”
According to Bhatia, Apsom Technologies has always been in the forefront in providing path breaking solution. “Presently, we have solutions for fabric printing using eco-solvent inks, direct sublimation inks and UV roll to roll. In fact, in all these segments, we have machines since last one year and already have significant installations in the country,” he says adding that the company offers Sovikaa 3.2mtr Eco-Solvent Printer, Liyu FH3208 Hi Tex Industrial Textile Printer for 3.2mtr application, Sovikaa TS 2000 for application up to 2mtr, Sovikaa V2 & V4 UV RTR Printer and Skyjet SDL 3300 UV RTR Back to Back Printer.
For soft signage printing solution, ColorJet offers its flagship, SoftJet Grand. “We have SoftJet Grand 3.2mtr grand format soft signage printer with 4- and 8-colour options. This printer is completely in-sync with the diverse requirements of current markets. It easily prints on polyester-based fabrics, which can be recycled and use environment-friendly aqueous based inks, and are leading the way to nurture nature for our future. It is most suitable for a large range of soft signage applications, such as banners, displays, signage, parasols, flags, backdrops and outdoor advertisements. Now with additional ink colours, Softjet Grand will produce crisper, more colourful and more vibrant images and will fulfil much more diversified requirements for our clients,” Bansal says.
Growth Factors & Avenues
Bhatia feels that the main driver for growth of soft signage is restriction by various state governments on usage of flex, followed by demand from MNCs and corporates as well as demand from printer to upgrade themselves. “This growth is also fuelled by the fact that now new media is easily available in Indian market, making it far easier for the printer fraternity to use this technology. This can grow further if we start manufacturing fabrics for signage applications,” he says.
Bhatia sees the growth avenues for soft signage are the rising application areas that include backlit in-shop displays for POS and POP, outdoor advertising including billboards and hoardings, and of course, for the flag and banner markets.
No doubt that the adoption of soft signage by retail industry has added speed to the growth of soft signage. In fact, retail industry started using soft signage way before the restrictions were imposed on the use of flex. The role of soft signage has been on the surge these days when it comes to attracting customers into the store, to navigating them to desired products/shelves, and then to finally converting those navigations into sales.
According to Bansal, apparel retail stores, sports industry and stadium branding and flexible event designs are the major contributors to soft signage usage. “Easy handling, simple installation and environment friendliness has pushed the concept of DIY (do it yourself) which eventually leads to the growth of soft signage,” he mentions.
Apart from that soft signage is also finding its way into other short-term events, including festivals and retail promotions. Fabric LED backlit displays are getting in to the trend wherein the near translucent fabrics facilitate with eye-catching advertisements and brand signs designed to generate awareness.
Nonetheless, the backlit soft signage can also be used to disburse the illumination so as to create a soft lighting effect. Further, soft signage offers the potential for attractive staging of trade show booths along with many other such environments. Digitally printable textiles are also gaining commendable popularity for banner stands and window graphics, where textiles can provide an aesthetically pleasing, soft look and feel.
According to Tejasa Purandare, Executive Director, CoSign India Ltd., the industry is expected to clock $1.1 trillion by 2020, out of which $120 billion will be the share of e-commerce, which is merely 10%. In view of this projection, she strongly insisted that soft signage industry has a marvellous growth trajectory beginning with fabric display systems. “The need is to identify these opportunities emerging out of this ever growing retail sector, right in time to print a green future for the signage industry.”
Adding further thrust, Bansal says, “There’s no doubt that there has been a demand for soft signage in recent years. And the reasons are many. The graphics are easier to store, transport and assemble as well as recycle. In addition, a backlit textile looks much better than a backlit film which uplifts the brand image and entire ambience of the store.” He further adds, “Our SoftJet Grand is completely in-sync with the diverse requirements of the current markets. It is the best solution for fabric signage, especially for backlit fabric signage, which combines fabric with LED lights in a silicon edge graphic system.”
When it comes to creating graphics on fabric, the technology has moved miles ahead. Owing to the continuous research & development, today’s aqueous-based digital printers turn modern polyester-based fabrics into bold graphics. This transformation happens when microscopic particles of solid ink dyes are heated to the right temperature, changing them into gas. When applied to the polyester surface, these dyes develop a permanent bond by interacting within the subsurface of the fabric. The result is superb colour saturation, sharply defined text and graphics, and long-lasting results.
For all this to happen and remain pretty visible across the scenes, PSPs play important role. We spoke to a few of them to find out what are their take of this inevitable shift. According to Prabhjot Sethi, Pashupati Enterprises (Grand Tambu), sooner or later, future belongs to fabric because flex will be banned finally across the country owing to its limitations towards environment. “It is just a matter of time. So, what if we switch over to fabric right now! It will be in favour of our future generation.”
However, Singh is cautious as the demand for fabric is yet to pick up pace. “Also, most of the fabric used in flags and banners are imported and not manufactured. The UV machines meant for printing on fabric are highly priced and are therefore limited in number. Further, fusing or seaming of fabric is still very difficult and the technology needs to address this concern.”
Singh says that the major drawback is availability of appropriate media. “If the big corporates take the initiative and ask only for fabric instead of any other media with hazardous content, the suppliers will have no other option but to source the needed fabric to fulfil the clients’ requirements,” he elaborates adding that he is sourcing fabric from China.
He further opines that there are two different perspectives of this shift. “One is forced by the law or the ban that a few states have implemented on using flex, another is by choice through the stronger awareness campaign which I personally feel that the newer generation is the driving force for us as it is more inclined towards greener solutions.”
“I foresee a very bright future of flags & banners, which hold the future of our promotional activities. In the international markets, flags & banners have emerged as the absolute alterative media for promotion. But due to lack of availability of the technology as well as the appropriate media, we are way behind. Of course, the number of players as well as consumers will increase with time as it has the quality to emerge as one of the most popular media for masses.
Nitin B. Gami, Founder Director, Perfect Scan from Indore says that the market for flags and banners will be very rich in time to come. “It was to fulfil the demand for flags & banners that we bought back-to-back printer, because the requirement is to print on both sides of the media. For now, the market is opening up as quite a few orders are there with specifications about the back-to-back printing technology. Most of such demand for flags is coming from telecom and IT industry.”
According to him, Indore always leads by example. “Most of the events are reportedly using banners & flags made of polyester. For instance in the IPL matches last year, which held in Indore, only fabric especially polyester signage, banners and flags were used inside the stadium,” he says adding that following this trend only 2% shift has been recorded while the conversion of flex towards fabric is happening at a steady rate.
“In the meantime, we are continuously working on 3Rs – Reduce, Recycle & Reuse. We do organise events like road shows for spreading awareness as how we can reduce the use of hazardous substance including flex, appeal people to not throw away used flex signages in garbage rather try submitting the same to some recycling agencies, and also promoting reuse of the printed signage for covering roof and shelter homes in time of need. We do ask them to shift towards Green media.”
He informs that he has five machines, of which, three are for fabric printing. “This itself shows that a visible shift is there and will take some more time but the conversion is granted. We believe that the time is right now to initiate the process. For now, we have 40:60 :: UV:Solvent, which in this fiscal will be interchanged.”
Rahul Gami, Director, Global Printech Graphics from New Delhi has just setup his business. “We are getting orders for outdoor advertising in fabric, which is still new to the market. But we believe that in a matter of couple of years, it will get matured and affordable too. The machine that I have installed in my premises is capable of printing signages for outdoor, indoor, soft signage, sportswear, sofa cover, carton, pillow cover, bedsheets, etc,” he says insisting that fabric is future.
Hitesh Fariya, Director, Sandaw Digitex from Mumbai is very optimistic about fabric. “The market for fabric is very good and is picking up fast. In one or two years from now, the sale for fabric signages will be on a rather faster track. The demand from corporate sector is expected to further boost the fabric printing in time to come. For now, it is difficult to beat flex but slowly the eco-friendly technology will pick up and will create the pitch for fabric printing. But yes, it is difficult to expect that UV technology for fabric printing to match the price with flex.”
He has six machines including solvent, eco-solvent, latex, sublimation and UV. “Flags & banners contribute 20% of my total business as of now and I expect that it would be 50% in a couple of years. India being a price sensitive market, majority looks for cheap solution. And UV is the latest technology which comes at a higher price and is not yet affordable to majority of us.”
According to him, fabric has already entered into indoor branding activities. “Most of the brands have shifted over to fabric light boxes. This will further increase with the expansion of retail industry. But as far as flags and outdoor signages are concerned, fabric is yet make inroad because of its limitations. The seaming in fabric is not yet easy and that makes the whole process tedious for us. It is not only time consuming but also adds cost to the already costlier material. For instance, I have recently got an order of 20×30 feet hoarding in fabric, while the machine comes in 10 feet width. So, to complete the project, we need to seam three pieces of 10 feet, which is neither viable nor feasible.”
Srinivas, Anu Textile Printing from Hyderabad in Telangana, reveals that there was no fabric printing machine in the region before he purchased one, a couple of months ago. “We are the first to install a sublimation machine for fabric printing as we foresee our future only in fabric signage here in the state. This is the impact of the recent ban on using flex for signage in the state. People have no other option but fabric although the cost is more than flex.”
According to him, the ban is strictly followed in his region. “We are not allowed to put or install even a single flex signage especially in Municipal Corporation area, around the District Headquarters, or even in the main city. When asked my client, he says print it on fabrics.”
He shares that in the recently completed local body (Gram Panchayat) election, he printed and supplied flags and mufflers (local people tie around the neck) in good quantity. “The result was as expected. Accordingly, we are targeting the upcoming Lok Sabha election, scheduled later this year. We hope to get good business out of it as the government here is more inclined towards fabrics.”
Naresh Aggarwal hails from Punjab where neither the ban is announced nor expected in near future. “The market here is yet to get a turn as the state authorities like in southern part of the country have not issued any such ban in north India, especially in Punjab and Haryana the two markets that we cater to. Though we don’t have any such requirements of fabric printing as of now, but we foresee the market for fabric in future,” he says adding that the future belongs to eco-friendly media.
“We can’t take the shift on our own unless any such bill is passed from the state authority. We would love to take a shift because then there won’t be any option but to follow suit. For now, we are not getting any order for fabric signage – be it flags, banners, hoardings, or whatever,” he confirms insisting that the shift is inevitable as plastic-based material is not at all environment friendly. “We look forward to the change and would welcome it.”
The market, the mindset and the legislation are more towards the green media i.e., fabric. The outdoor flags & fabric banners have been slowly becoming centrestage when it comes to attracting consumers’ attention and grabbing greater traffic into spaces like shopping centres, restaurants, car dealerships, etc. Further, flags & banners are relatively easy as well as inexpensive to create, allow flexibility to retailers/users/customers with regard to updating and refreshing their messaging.
There are quite a few advantages of soft signage that are not available in other media. For instance, unlike vinyl and paper, soft signage is reusable. It can be displayed, then folded up and shipped to another location to be displayed again. Soft signage is less expensive to ship as textile substrates weigh less than vinyl and PVC, thus saves on shipping costs. Soft signage has a higher-value look and feel to it as compared to vinyl and paper. Last but not the least, soft signage has a better environmental footprint than vinyl or PVC. So, why can’t we foresee a promotional world full of flags and banners!