Work Trucks Are Your Best Vehicle for Advertising

A service company branding expert has some surprising suggestions for pumpers to make the best first impression with consumers.

Work Trucks Are Your Best Vehicle for Advertising

Dan Antonelli is president of New Jersey-based KickCharge Creative ( 

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A while back I received a phone call from an employee at a pumping company that I won’t identify for reasons that will become clear in a moment. The caller was excited about the business and wanted us to feature her boss in a Pumper profile. I enjoy talking to folks who are enthusiastic about the septic service industry, and we had a nice conversation.

As we talked, I pulled up the company website and noticed something that sent up a red flag. The trucks pictured on the web pages included prominent graphic images of Yosemite Sam, the gun-toting cowboy of Warner Bros. cartoon fame. Yosemite Sam was accompanied by the text, “Back off. We aren’t haulin’ milk.”

“Excuse me, but I’m afraid featuring your company may cause problems for you,” I told the caller. I explained that Yosemite Sam is a trademarked image and Warner Bros. would not have a positive reaction to its use on the company’s fleet if they somehow saw the truck pictured in the magazine. In fact, the entertainment company could come after this pumper and, at best, ask that these images be removed from the trucks, or worse, sue the company for trademark infringement.

The caller was flummoxed. She said Yosemite Sam is included on all of their vehicles, and that many customers find the accompanying joke to be funny. The boss wouldn’t want to remove the cartoon character or the joke. The caller was surprised to think they’d done anything wrong using the graphics without Warner Bros.’s permission.

After that call I’ve thought a review of truck graphics, and basic branding advice for pumpers, is in order. And small business branding expert Dan Antonelli, president of New Jersey-based KickCharge Creative (, agreed to share insights into a few common issues I continue to see cropping up in marketing for septic service contractors.

Antonelli has helped many trades-related companies — such as plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors — reinvent their companies for growth. 


I’ve developed my own perspective about marketing septic service companies over the years. Promoting professionalism has been a constant message coming from this magazine going back well before my time as editor. Along the way, I’ve often said that bathroom humor is a hindrance, not helpful, to the wastewater industry. 

I don’t like overused taglines including “We’re not haulin’ milk,” “No. 1 in the No. 2 business,” and so forth. I don’t think these jokes are clever, or that they help customers remember a pumping company, or that they boost the reputation of hardworking contractors. To the contrary, I believe they cost pumpers, in terms of reputation, respect and revenues. I’m not convinced pumpers are putting their best marketing foot forward by using these jokes. Thankfully I have seen a trend away from bathroom humor, and that’s a positive.

And a history of trademark infringement must be considered. I have seen numerous trucks with images of Yosemite Sam and the skunk character Pepé Le Pew, for example, used on the vacuum tanks. Apart from being part of the jokes mentioned above, they are clearly used in violation of trademark rules. And keep in mind that ignorance is no excuse for trademark infringement. Owners of these images may take action that could lead to an unpleasant and costly situation for pumpers.

Antonelli has a lot of experience with these and other branding issues. He started hand-lettering work trucks at age 14 and at 50, he’s helped hundreds of companies rebrand and build their image through KickCharge. He has written three books on the topic, the most recent being Building a Big Small Business Brand, and he is a frequent speaker at service industry trade shows on changing the consumer perception of small businesses.


It is no surprise to me that Antonelli dislikes the bathroom humor approach taken by some pumping companies. And he also faces trademark infringement on a routine basis as companies co-opt brands he has built for companies for their own purposes. Antonelli pursues companies who copy his logos, mascots and truck designs and has them removed from their trucks — often at great cost to the contractors.

“They can be served a cease-and-desist (order) and it’s a very expensive lesson to learn about trademark infringement,” he says. Many an expensive truck wrap has been peeled off in such cases, he says. And he says the bathroom jokes on the trucks can cheapen a company’s brand, but they can also have a negative impact on a pumper’s technicians.

“The service vehicle is often the first brand impression that the consumer may have about that business, and you want to lead in with something positive and have that consumer believe something about your business before you’ve had the opportunity to speak to them,” he says. “When you go with ‘No. 1 in the No. 2 business,’ you might think that’s pithy or kind of cute, but is it professional? Is it helping them feel confident in your service, that you have the right expertise for what they may hire you for?”

Instead, Antonelli advises pumpers to lead in with how solutions they offer are being delivered in an environmentally responsible way and convey a sense that your operation is run with a high degree of sophistication. “You want to lead in with something that leaves the best positive takeaways,” he continues. 

“If they have a big vehicle, that’s their best canvas. Dollar for dollar, vehicle advertising will be the least expensive form of advertising they can provide,” Antonelli explains. “The number of impressions and the cost of impressions is unmatched. Invest in making sure you have a great brand foundation and then implement it in a unique and compelling way on that vehicle.”


Yes, the messages sent by your trucks can have an impact on customers, but Antonelli says they can have a positive or negative impact on your crew as well. Do you want to promote a professional image, or poke fun at the service you provide? 

“Is that the type of image that helps you attract really good technicians or are they kind of embarrassed about the whole thing?” he says of putting those jokes on your trucks. Pumpers have to realize “another audience you have is the employees. You want to make it so people will be proud to wear a branded shirt and uniform.”

Antonelli has strong opinions about branding in the trades, and some of his recommendations might be surprising, even off-putting, to some business owners. But he says he has to be honest with his clients about ideas that will transform businesses for the better. 

Here are a few of Antonelli’s branding basics, especially as it regards your rolling billboards:

Choose disruptive colors.

Part of Antonelli’s rebranding research is to look at truck and equipment colors used by competing companies in each market and he chooses something different for his clients. “Put colors together that people have not seen often. Orange and teal is not a popular color scheme, but that’s something I would advocate for. It’s ownable and disruptive,” he explains. A unique palette will help your company set itself apart from the competition.

Don’t use red, white and blue.

You read that correctly. You may be patriotic and want to show your pride in the USA, but so do many other pumpers. Antonelli argues pumpers squander first impressions if they drape their truck in a waving flag. Consumers may feel good when they see Old Glory, but it won’t translate into them remembering your company when they need a tank pumped. 

Leave your name out of it.

Generally speaking, Antonelli recommends contractors drop their name from the company identity. While he often encounters resistance to this, most family names aren’t memorable and don’t convey a positive brand message. “Part of the ego aspect of it is we’ve had this name for years. Everybody knows us,” he says. Is Joe’s Septic the best name for your company? “You get in the mindset that there isn’t something better out there. But does that name adequately reflect who you are today? Now you have 15 trucks out there, and is Joe the guy coming to pump my septic?” 

Exceptions to this rule happen when a family name works with a memorable mascot or rebranding concept. For example, one plumbing family company was named Barker, so the KickCharge rebranding included a dog mascot holding a wrench. In another case, Antonelli worked with a company called Air Source America, but suggested the owner use his name and call it Buehler Air Conditioning. Folks associate the family name with the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off movie character from the 1980s and the image is reinforced with a fun logo of a teen wearing sunglasses. “Nobody knew what (Air Source America) meant, but they always remember his last name,” Antonelli says.

Unclutter the truck.

What information should you put on the truck? Recommendations may change over the years; for instance, Antonelli said a web address is more important than a phone number these days. “Smartphones make it much easier to Google the company name, so numbers are a little less relevant,” he says. “When’s the last time you copied down the number from a truck and referenced it later?” Many companies still include a phone number, but Antonelli wouldn’t go far beyond those two text elements. He wouldn’t use the truck to list multiple services or provide other details; the name of the company and any accompanying logo, mascot or other dominant image should convey what you do. And use three sides of the truck to repeat your brand. 

Don’t cut corners on a logo or a mascot.

Creating unique artwork can be costly but it’s critical to creating a brand that you can protect by trademark and build upon, Antonelli says. As mentioned earlier, don’t copy a popular cartoon character, and don’t rely on clip art, even if it’s legal to do so. Antonelli explains that you can’t trademark clip art images, so you can’t prevent others in your market from using the same concept.


Some service trades, including plumbers, seem to have developed a more sophisticated approach to branding and truck graphics. You can see some interesting examples of before-and-after truck graphics involving service companies at the KickCharge website. 

“I think they are recognizing their ability to get more dollars for their service is directly related to the impression their brand gives to a consumer and making that consumer believe they’re getting a better value out of the company,” Antonelli says. “I want the homeowner to believe that before I ring their doorbell I’m the most competent plumber in the area and I want to get paid the most.”  


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