Best Practices Spotlight

Advertising Best Practices: Bus Wraps and In-Kind Advertising

January 2017

Advertising can be a way to generate additional revenue for your agency and/or to help get the word out about your transit services.  This article will cover a few best practices and lessons learned regarding bus wraps and in-kind advertising.  For more comprehensive information about these topics and other marketing strategies, visit National RTAP’s Marketing Transit Toolkit section on Strategies for Building Awareness, Image, and Support.


Bus Wraps 

Transit advertising is advertising inside buses, on the exterior of vehicles, and at bus shelters. One of the beauties of transit advertising is that the space comes free-of-charge; usually your only expenses are production costs. Utilizing the exterior of your vehicles for your logo and contact information, you can build your brand and raise awareness of the system throughout the community.  It’s like a traveling billboard, as you can see in the example on the right.

Transit advertising also can be a source of revenue or a way to highlight local partnerships. Many systems sell ads in the form of full or partial bus wraps.  It is important, however, to take into consideration the staff time and expenses of selling and maintaining the wraps and other ads.  You may find that using your vehicles to build your own brand is a better use of the space.  You also need to take your passengers' experience into account, like making sure they can see clearly out of the windows.

Below are some experiences and tips from rural transit agencies:

Pullman Transit, in Pullman, WA implemented bus wraps displaying the local Washington State University mascot, a cougar, paid for by the university (show in photo on the left).  Wayne Thompson, Manager, said, “The bus wraps remain a big success in our system, and are recognized almost as a Pullman Transit trademark now region wide.”  However, Mr. Thompson notes that visibility out of the side windows has been a concern for passengers.  Also, because the window areas are perforated, they need to be washed more gently, and hard water and soap build-up can occur.  With new buses, he now makes sure that at least the front two windows are uncovered.  He also recommends looking into material that allows for more aggressive daily washing.

Fairmont-Marion County Transit Authority (FMCTA) in Fairmont, WV also sells ad space on their vehicles.  They mostly only do window coverings now, so that their own logo and branding is still visible on the vehicles.  You can see an example on the right.  George Levitsky, General Manager, said a clear film can be put over the wrap, which can extend its life, if needed.  Mr. Levitsky recommends ensuring that the advertising agreement takes into account the costs of printing, installing, as well as removing the bus wrap.  See FMCTA's sample advertising contract.

Southern Nevada Transit Coalition (SNTC), based in Laughlin, NV, also learned this last lesson, especially that there is almost always some damage done to the vehicles during removal of the bus wrap.  In addition, the time and labor involved in the entire process often outweighed the revenue benefits.  Deb Dauenhauer, Executive Director, says SNTC no longer sells advertising, as they didn’t have the staff time to dedicate to it.  However, they did create a space to put ads on the back of their vehicles for in-kind advertising arrangements. Their maintenance team bolted a frame to the back of the bus, and ads can be easily changed out.  They primarily give this space to their local radio station, in exchange for air time to promote their transit services.  You can see the frame and the radio station ad that goes into it below.

Bill Telovsky of New York State DOT also shared that several rural subrecipients used to do bus wraps that incorporated local themes, like the Adirondack Mountains, as seen on the left for Franklin County Public Transit.  However, the wraps faded, peeled, or covered too much of the bus, and it ended up not being a sustainable practice.  They now simply sell ad space inside their bus and on their schedules.


In-Kind Advertising

In-kind advertising is a great way to promote your services locally through a mutually beneficial arrangement with a local business or organization.  One example is Southern Nevada Transit Coalition’s aforementioned practice of trading ad space on their vehicles for the radio station in exchange for radio spots.  They also offer ads inside their vehicles to major employers in the area, in return for displaying SNTC's brochures at their facility (e.g. at hotel check-in and concierge) or providing cash or in-kind donations for SNTC fundraising events.  SNTC offers an equal amount of ad space to all that want to participate.  See the example of the resort ad below.

Another example is Fairmont-Marion County Transit Authority’s partnership with their local newspaper, where they exchange ad space in the newspaper for having the newspapers available on some of their vehicles.

Durango Transit, in Durango, CO, uses sponsorships as a type of in-kind advertising.  Local businesses and organizations can sponsor a Free Fare day.  The cost to the sponsor is more than the agency's normal fare revenue for the day, and Durango Transit keeps the difference.  The sponsor’s name is on the Durango Transit website, on the electronic displays on the buses, and is advertised in public service announcements (PSAs) on the local radio station.  They do around 20 Free Fare days a year.  If a business or organization sponsors six Free Fare days, they get their name on a fare box cover, to increase their visibility.

Durango Transit also gets sponsors to donate giveaways as part of their Clean Commute Week in June, which involves bike to work events, transportation forums, and more.  This year they received $14,000 in donations and sponsorships.  In addition, sponsors contribute great merchandise to their Way to Go! Club, a point rewards program (like airline miles or credit card rewards) for sustainable transportation, where members get points when they choose to not drive alone. 

Finally, Durango Transit gets the word out about their services through twice daily PSAs on their local NPR station, pre-recorded by Amber Blake, Director, Department of Transportation and Sustainability.  They run one PSA daily for one week, with 52 unique PSAs per year.  Amber counted 416 since they started doing this nine years ago!  These are a great way to mention their Free Fare days and sponsors, upcoming events and schedule changes, their Way to Go! Club, and the many benefits of using their transit system or other alternative modes of transportation.


Things to Consider

It is important to note that net advertising income and in-kind contributions (if formally documented) can be used for local match, per the 5311 Circular.  See FTA Circular 9040.1G, Chapter III, 4 (h) for more information.

Also, before your agency sells ad space and creates revenue contracts, you should make sure you have an advertising policy that complies with federal procurement requirements as well as any state or local laws (which may prohibit certain types of advertising, like alcohol or political ads).  Per the FTA’s Third Party Procurement FAQ on Revenue Contracts: “FTA encourages grantees to produce revenue that can be used to offset program costs. However, FTA requires that revenue contracts be competitively awarded in order to give all businesses an opportunity to participate when a federally funded asset is being used as a revenue-enhancing source for the grantee.”  See the rest of the Third Party Procurement FAQs as well as Section 3.1.4 (page 40) of FTA’s Best Practices in Procurement Manual (updated October 2016). 

If you’re considering implementing any of the above strategies to promote your system or generate revenue, make sure you have a marketing plan in place to help you achieve your goals.  Visit our Marketing Transit Toolkit to brush up on marketing basics and use the Marketing Plan Worksheets to help you develop or update your plan.  There are also free templates, stock photos, graphics, and more, all available at www.nationalrtap.org/marketingtoolkit.

In summary, before you pursue any of the above advertising strategies:

  1. Consider the staff time and any costs involved.
  2. Review the FTA requirements and find out about state or local advertising restrictions.
  3. Have at least a basic advertising policy and marketing plan in place. 
  4. Ensure that your bus wrap contracts account for the costs of removal and any vehicle damage, in addition to installation and maintenance; the experience of your passengers; the expected life of the wrap vs. the term of the contract; and how the bus wrap may contribute to or detract from your system’s visibility in the community.


Additional Resources


Photos (top to bottom): Bus wrap from Marketing Toolkit; Pullman Transit (WA) bus wrap with WSU Cougar; Fairmont-Marion County Transit (WV) window ad; Franklin County Transit (NY) bus wrap; Southern Nevada Transit Coalition (NV) external advertising frame and radio ad; and SNTC interior ad.