The billboards lining I-15 play a crucial role for the in-crowd of Utah tech, from announcing new products and battling out drama with competitors.

The billboards of Silicon Slopes

The billboards lining I-15 play a crucial role for the in-crowd of Utah tech, from announcing new products and battling out drama with competitors.

Before tech darling Divvy achieved unicorn status and was acquired by, then-CRO Sterling Snow began asking some philosophically heavy questions. 

“Back when we really didn’t have a lot of money, we sat down and asked, ‘What do we want to be known for as a brand?’” Snow says. “We decided that we want to be known as the company that loves its customers and community more than anybody else.”

Having settled that question, the next became how to get the word out.

“We decided to elevate [other companies] using our money and brand equity. That’s where the idea of billboard advertising came up,” Snow recounts. “We decided the best billboard in the state of Utah was one of those digitals around the Point of the Mountain. Then we decided we wanted to do a full digital takeover of it and started using it to highlight good news, like our customers’ product releases and successful fundraising by other companies.”

It wasn’t long before the Divvy billboard became something to look forward to when driving south into Utah County. And in addition to acting as Divvy’s CRO, Snow inadvertently found himself in a role resembling broadcast media editorial director.

“I would get a text or LinkedIn message where somebody would say, ‘Hey, we’re about to announce something. Can we get a shoutout on the billboard?’” Snow says. “It became a staple of the Silicon Slopes scene…Not using the billboard to promote ourselves was what attracted a lot of businesses to us.” 

Divvy’s billboard—sitting equidistant from the unicorn bookends of Lucid in South Jordan and Domo in American Fork—established a precedent, giving advertisers permission to expand the application of the medium beyond the typical, just as the medium was preparing to be thoroughly democratized.

The rise of the digital billboard

Technological disruption can be capricious in assigning winners and losers. At the turn of the 21st century, broadcast radio and television were the top tools for brand definition. The limitations inherent to billboard advertising made the channel useful mainly to well-established, big-budget brands large enough to benefit from the traditionally expensive and imprecise medium.

Today, the narrative has thoroughly flipped. Cable viewership is now subordinate to streaming video. Time spent listening to the radio is in a state of ongoing decline, while revenue from out-of-home advertising—led by billboards—charts a strong upward trajectory only briefly disrupted by the occasional economic downturn or pandemic.

According to Raymond Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova, this surprising return to relevance is connected to the 2005 debut of digital billboards.

“The shift to digital has had a beneficial impact on the billboard industry,” Taylor says. “It allowed billboard owners to focus on converting to digital in particularly good locations, where now you can show multiple messages per minute, essentially expanding the amount of prime space available. This opened up the door to some advertisers that never would have [purchased billboard advertising] before.”

But it’s important to note that while 2005 saw the arrival of digital billboards, it took another decade before a Utah company would effectively bridge the gap between demand and supply.

In 2015, James Munnerlyn was a marketing expert well-versed in both the self-serve ad buying approach pioneered by Google AdWords as well as what was then the old-fashioned, high-touch process of buying static and digital billboard ads.

Having noticed that digital billboards were just large outdoor computer monitors, Munnerlyn’s future business partner, Brent Thomson, asked him how the process of buying those ads had evolved with the medium. He was surprised by the answer.

“I told him the digital billboard sales process had not evolved at all,” Munnerlyn recalls. “That led us both to wonder why those ads couldn’t be bought in the same way online ads are.”

As those conversations progressed, the pair became aware of a pattern.

“Any time any media becomes digitized, it follows a similar path of being transacted in the smallest possible unit. It all gets boiled down to pay-per-click or pay-per-impression, for example,” Munnerlyn says, adding that after months of searching, the pair concluded the development of a self-service application matching advertisers with the smallest possible unit of digital billboard inventory had yet to be developed, but inevitably would be. 

“We formed the opinion that there probably weren’t two guys better suited to launching this than us,” Munnerlyn says. With that, Blip was born, and billboard advertising was transformed. 

The result of this transformation has been one of economic optimization. Billboard owners see increased revenue by chopping inventory up into quick bites at higher rates per second, while the cost to advertisers simultaneously plummets because the expense is shared. For the first time, upstarts can build brand awareness through meaningful exposure at prime locations for a fraction of what it traditionally costs.

The outcome of this shift was the vibrant rebirth of a once-dated medium, with scrappy upstart brands jumping out in front. Given the concentration of scrappy upstarts populating the Silicon Slopes’ Interstate 15 corridor, one might expect to see that group making particular use of the Blip technology—and indeed, one does.  

"Broadcast advertising has a special edge. When something is broadcast, it’s not just that everybody knows about it. It’s that everybody knows that everybody knows about it. That’s the magic of billboards as the most accessible broadcast media, and it can’t be achieved nearly as efficiently by any other means.”

The billboard wars

Billboard applications were stretched farther still last year, thanks to what’s come to be known as the Utah Cookie Wars. The skirmish was sparked when Crumbl filed suit against competitors Dirty Dough and Crave, claiming IP infringement. 

Dirty Dough founder Bennett Maxwell suspects billboards played a role in that dustup. 

“We bought some digital billboard ads in May, announcing, ‘Dirty Dough coming soon to Utah County,’ he says. “In June, Crumbl flooded the freeway with billboards. Then the lawsuit happened.”

Given how quickly digital billboard messages can move from concept to production, Maxwell managed to get a series of cleverly indirect jabs at Crumbl’s litigiousness (“Let your taste buds be the judge”) into rotation within days. But that’s not how the ads registered their greatest impact.

“The billboards got a lot of local attention, but my LinkedIn post, which was just a screenshot of the ads, got even more. It got picked up by CNBC, Good Morning America and the Wall Street Journal,” Maxwell says. “When the lawsuit hit, we were at 90 franchise sales, which was great. But over the past eight or nine months, we’ve sold more than 300. It’s not because Crumbl sued us but because of our reaction. It gave us the attention we needed.”

This experience left Maxwell with a special appreciation for Utah billboard culture and the ongoing, asynchronous conversations writ large that it fosters. It’s also changed how he approaches his time behind the wheel.

“I’m always looking at billboards now, and I love it,” he says. “Cookie Plug is another company, a competitor, that just opened up in Provo. They put one up bragging that their box is longer than the competition and that size matters. It’s hilarious. Then I just drove past Homie’s three billboards that say, ‘I like big bucks and I cannot lie,’ and I was cracking up. That’s genius.”

A shared experience

Homie’s iconic, three-in-a-row approach to billboard advertising—the most long-standing of which greets northbound drivers in the same place Divvy’s greets southbounders—represents as big a gamble as marketers can make.  

“They’ve been there since June of 2016, not long after Homie launched. When we bought those three-in-a-row, it was pretty much our entire budget,” says Sarah Edelman, Homie’s head of marketing. “The goal was to make an impact and cut through the noise. Market research showed people were more likely to remember our two-in-a-row billboards [than our singles], so even though it was more expensive, the decision was made to take the chance on three.”  

Like a three-act play, Edelman says three is the magic number when telling a story. 

“We see the three parts as hook, humor and value proposition,” she says. “The hook grabs their attention and people know to look for it. Homie’s brand is built on humor. Finally, the value prop is the explanation of what we do.” 

The Homie approach to persuasion relegates product references to last place. While this runs contrary to many marketers’ instincts, it is consistent with the proven principles underlying the increasingly popular storytelling marketing movement, which says brands benefit by leading with emotional connection. 

In practice, the theory works. When it comes to generating leads, Edelman says Homie’s billboards are consistently the top paid source.

While the billboard’s return to relevance would have been difficult to predict 20 years ago, it’s likely influenced by humanity’s desire for broadly shared experiences. Generation X may be the last to recall the impact of moments shared en masse in real time. Recall the final episode of M*A*S*H, which created plumbing havoc in some cities as millions of toilets flushed in unison during the closing credits. 

Blip’s Munnerlyn finds that when culture is broadcast with sufficient breadth, consuming it fulfills a need that’s absent when algorithm-curated content is pushed to the individual—endowing members of even disparate groups with a satisfying form of tribal identity akin to the gratification that accompanies familiarity with an inside joke.

“Broadcast advertising has a special edge,” Munnerlyn says. “When something is broadcast, it’s not just that everybody knows about it. It’s that everybody knows that everybody knows about it. That’s the magic of billboards as the most accessible broadcast media, and it can’t be achieved nearly as efficiently by any other means.”

For Snow, the value of applauding others’ stories goes far beyond Divvy’s capacity to generate leads or even goodwill. He sees the success of Utah’s larger tech scene as requiring more of the same esprit de corps that gave life to the Silicon Slopes initiative to begin with.  

“Utah will rise or fall based on the things we all do together to bond and create community and the sense that we’re on the same team,” he says. “I love that the many thousands—perhaps millions—of dollars Divvy has spent promoting others on our billboard over the years has contributed to tightening those bonds, building a stronger community and making it so we all feel invested in each others’ success.”  

Judd Bagley is a Lehi, Utah based marketing and communications professional who launched his career in journalism, temporarily leaving that calling to raise a family. He always vowed to return to journalism, he is.