Buses and trains wrapped in ads pay off big for Metro Transit

Green Line train
A Green Line Metro Transit light rail train with two wrapped cars passes through downtown St. Paul, Oct. 8, 2014.
Regina McCombs / MPR News

Metro Transit plans to double its number of rolling billboards in January, and reap the benefits of a widening stream of advertising on its network of buses and light rail lines.

For advertisers, the debut of the Green Line between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul in June offered even more public space to promote campaigns, academic institutions and retail companies to millions of eyes each month.

In a few months, Metro Transit will bump the number of Green Line train cars available to be wrapped in advertisements from 10 light rail vehicles to about 20, said company spokesman Drew Kerr.

"The inventory will definitely open up in January and with that, our advertising efforts will ramp up," said Marcus Bolton, general manager of Titan, the company that has a contract to put advertisements across Metro Transit's network of bus routes and light rail lines.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

With its contract with Titan set to expire within months, Metro Transit is accepting proposals from potential partners through the end of October, and will choose from bidders by the end of 2014.

In the contract, Titan promised Metro Transit either 65 percent of ad revenue, which runs about $20,000 per month for advertisers, or an annual revenue of $3.15 million — whichever was higher.

Titan surpassed the $3.15 million guarantee, raking in sales of over $5.6 million in the year 2013, and Metro Transit pocketed $3.7 million, said Bruce Howard, Metro Transit's Director of Customer Service and Marketing.

Howard said for 2014, Metro Transit budgeted $3.85 million for ad revenue on its buses and trains, a figure it expects to surpass. That money is funneled to fuel, maintenance, salary and other operational costs, he said.

With the addition of the Green Line this year, Howard said, the transit company expects higher ad revenue, though he said that sum also will depend on external factors like the Twin Cities' advertising market.

"As a general assumption, because we have more space available there should be more ad revenues flowing into us," he said.

Wrapped cars
A Green Line Metro Transit light rail train with two wrapped cars passes through downtown St. Paul, Oct. 8, 2014.
Regina McCombs / MPR News

While one full bus wrap costs about $9,500, advertisers foot a $20,000 bill to wrap a train — an investment Bolton said is well worth the price.

"The Green Line wrap in particular is incredibly impactful just because it's running through both downtown areas," he said. "It's running through the University of Minnesota campus. It's providing transportation to the Gophers' football games as well as the Vikings' football games. There's a really, really high level of exposure."

Part of that revenue, Bolton said, comes from the advertising space that wraps around buses and trains. Titan also places ads inside trains and buses, and at light rail stations.

Bolton said though it's too early to predict how many eyes will scan Green Line wrap ads each day, the line's ridership of approximately 40,000 each week hints at the potential audience's size.

Past research, he said, has shown that ads wrapped on Blue Line cars made about 4.1 million "impressions" each month, or the number of times people saw them.

"When you think about the Green Line," Bolton said, "I think that that number is considerably higher."

It's not just retail establishments that are interested in plastering the light rail with their names and services, Bolton said. Fast food chains with multiple Twin Cities locations, health care and health insurance providers and academic institutions like the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas also do so.

With offices across the country, Titan can pull in big national advertisement dollars from telecommunication companies like Verizon and MetroPCS, Bolton said.

The advertising campaigns run for a minimum of 12 weeks. When advertisers are done the 3M-made stickers that are popular with transit companies are simply peeled off, he said.

Imagic, which produces and sometimes applies the giant printed vinyl stickers for Metro Transit, also plasters ads on ferries in the New York Harbor, the "L" train in Chicago and buses in North Carolina, senior account executive, Julian Swain said.

For a three-car train like those that service the Green Line, Swain said applying 22 four-foot-wide vertical panels onto the trains can take up to 13 hours.

"It's like putting up wallpaper," he said.

Howard said between its bus and train system, Metro Transits operates some 900 "moving billboards."

"We maybe don't have [wrapped] advertising on every one of those every day," he said, "[but] they're out there in the community and they get a lot of impressions. They move around."