BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG SIGNAGE

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From retail locations to Times Square, digital signage is a natural fit for American Eagle

New York City's Times Square is a mecca of advertising. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world visit the site, and countless news and entertainment broadcasts take place on its busy sidewalks. And considering the number of movie scenes filmed in Times Square, it's safe to say that it receives its fair amount of exposure.

Through it all, an eye-dazzling number of billboards and digital displays jockey for attention, advertising everything from M&Ms to Broadway plays. And these days, American Eagle Outfitters is doing its part to add to the excitement of Times Square—while helping to advance the use of digital signage.

Humble Beginnings
American Eagle Outfitters, a popular clothing and accessories retailer that was founded in 1977, is on the cutting edge of digital signage advertising. To promote both its American Eagle and Aerie brands, it uses digital signage in its stores and in outdoor displays. But the company didn't always use this type of technology for advertising.

As Dave Taylor, audio/visual engineer at American Eagle, explains, the company's first foray into digital signage was at its Home Office in Pittsburgh. There, they installed two video walls: one to welcome guests, and another to communicate with employees.

“One was to give visitors a 360-degree look into our brand; the other recognized employee efforts and shared them with the company,” Taylor said. “While guests are waiting, they get to experience the fun of our brand, with different messaging, our social media for both brands and more. And as employees walk in in the morning, they get to see things that other people worked on and the goals that they've reached.”

After the success of the Home Office installations, the idea of digital signage was embraced, and the company expanded video communication to its distribution center as a video bulletin board for employees.
“Our distribution center is open 24 hours a day, so it's good to have a digital way to bring messages to everybody,” Taylor said.

Thinking Bigger
The video walls and bulletin boards were very well-received by American Eagle's employees and guests, so the forward-thinking company decided to think bigger.

“These projects progressed to an idea to reach out to our consumers via video platform,” Taylor said. “Our psychographic of passionate, young-minded individuals live in the digital age. Technology is a constant in their lives, and not only is it our future but it is our 'now'. We constantly need to progress to satisfy and surprise our consumers.”

The company just needed to find the right outlet to communicate with its fans—and to attract new ones.

“Our company is about optimism, individuality and iconic American style,” Taylor explained. “We want to be able to express that in a way that resonates clearly with our fans. Everything is going to digital. Our goal is to embrace that, like we do in our home lives, and have it be part of our retail environment. And, thus, the Times Square billboard was born.” 

The American Eagle Times Square display is a massive 15,000-square-foot Barco LED billboard—one of the largest in the city of New York, according to Taylor. The display features American Eagle advertising and other video content, plus the occasional ad from the company's advertising partners. American Eagle chose Barco monitors for Times Square, and uses Sedna Presenter software to manage the system.

“We chose Barco because of their durability, and Sedna because it gives us the ability to playback content synchronously across multiple surfaces and screens and a live HD input into the system, if we're doing concerts and events,” Taylor said. “The software is very easy to work with—which keeps us agile and streamlined. Surprisingly, we're just a team of three [that manages the network]. You would think this kind of technology would take a larger team to manage but due to the program that we use, it makes it very easy for us to manage with such a small team.”

The impressive billboard helps attract a steady stream of customers to American Eagle's flagship store, which is conveniently situated in the heart of Times Square. There, a 21-monitor video wall greets visits, while a video projector shows off the Aerie brand on the store's third floor.
Not surprisingly, the store—and the billboard—has been a huge success.

“It's great to do advertising in Times Square,” Taylor said. “Up to 400,000 people walk through here every day. It's a perfect opportunity to have a crowd for a product launch or concert, even for global brand awareness because you have people from all over the world here, pretty much 365 days a year. A lot of news and entertainment programs are out here all the time; they also do a lot of movie filming and TV shows. It's just constant.”

And Taylor is in the middle of it all, managing the display's content and working with other American Eagle departments to implement exciting new technology enterprises. Fittingly, his office is actually in Times Square, so he has a front-row view of the billboard, the store and their day-to-day successes.
Thanks to the popularity of the Times Square billboard and store, the company has expanded the audio/visual platform to its other domestic flagships. Soon enough, their international flagships will feature the technology as well. 

The Social Side
As American Eagle continues to grow its digital signage efforts, Taylor and his team are excited to continually innovate. One of his favorite recent projects involved making use of social media on the Times Square billboard, during the area's biggest night of the year—New Year's Eve.

Facebook users who were in Times Square for the New Year's festivities could opt in to American Eagle's program, which drew information from each user's Facebook page and displayed it, for all the world to see, on the company's enormous billboard. Fans from all over the country were able to see their favorite Facebook photos and fun facts about themselves, beautifully broadcast on the Barco LED screen, with thousands of other viewers looking on.

“On New Year's Eve, our billboard took center stage,” Taylor said. “It brought the audience for that night into American Eagle's world. It was very successful. We also had a live Twitter feed linked to the billboard. Doing that, in more of a global sense, in more than just our Times Square location, we think is key to engaging customers.”

Taylor and his team take advantage of the versatility of the Sedna Presenter software when working with social media. They tailor their approach depending on the application, or the advertiser.

“We have a server that we essentially use as a toolbox in which we can house different files,” he said. “Sedna can call these through HTML and Flash. We also work with HTML pages directly off the Internet that are formatted to our billboard template, or we just run a Flash file directly in Sedna that pulls either from a local server, a network server in our datacenter or an external source. We've learned there are many different ways to do something, and using Sedna has helped us be successful every time.”

Lessons Learned
Taylor said he and his team learned a lot through the deployments of their current digital technology. And they look forward to applying those lessons as they expand American Eagle's digital signage network.
For example, when implementing digital signage in the company's Soho location, the team learned a hard lesson as they realized they couldn't install cabling—which could have derailed the entire project.

“Instead, we came up with a wireless solution [using Cisco technology] that gave us another avenue to use in future digital signage installations, making our installations more flexible,” he explained. “We made it so that our player and any equipment that went with it would just need power, and we would have a wireless network right at the equipment. So we can have displays moved around the store without having to re-cable.”

Another challenge has been keeping up with the rapidly-evolving technology landscape. Luckily, Taylor's team is dedicated to staying abreast of new innovations.

“Technology progresses faster than hardware, so we constantly have to overhaul our systems; it’s a large capital investment,” he said. “However, because we have such a small team, it also makes us incredibly efficient. We’re able to pull across teams from marketing, IT and store visuals to quickly come up with solutions each time technology evolves. The conversations are quick; it's not a drawn-out process to come up with new things and because of the technology we use, it makes it really easy for us to innovate and keep up with the latest trends.”

The Future
Looking ahead, Taylor sees a bright future for digital signage at American Eagle. And he and his team are excited to see where the technology takes them.

“As it was in Times Square for New Year's, the future is a way for customers to contribute to our story,” he said. “We want to create a living social environment in which content, in a way, is both contributed and controlled by our fans and customers. [We want to let] our consumers own a piece of it.”

In the company's latest ad campaign, customers can enter contests to be featured as an American Eagle model—if only for a little while. The project has highlighted customers who are artists, DJs, skateboarders and more, giving other customers a look into their own unique worlds.

“This brings normal customers, and not just models, into our advertising and engages them,” Taylor said. “And we’re constantly looking at different products and keeping an eye out for the next upcoming thing. We invest in technology to always be on the progressive front of the audio/visual industry.”

Taylor is excited at the promise of implementing even more interaction into American Eagle's digital displays, even in individual stores. And, he promises plenty of innovation from the company in 2013 and beyond—something he attributes to his forward-thinking team.”

“Having a company that backs technological progression is key,” he said. “We have a lot of great people, from the top all the way down, who are really into technology and have a lot of experience with it, so they understand what we're trying to do, and they want to see it go there also. Everyone can have a vision and have a conversation, and it works out perfectly.”


Megan Weadock is an associate editor for Signage Solutions Magazine.

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