How Pantone Made Itself Irreplaceable by Mastering the Science of Color

Certain things are expected when the end of the year rolls around. Top ten lists, champagne toasts, and setting resolutions are all time honored traditions. But, this is also when Pantone, the world’s leading authority on color, announces its Color of the Year.

In previous years, they have selected exotic shades, like Tigerlily (a warm orange chosen for 2004) or Rose Quartz (a color resembling the ‘Millennial Pink’ that ruled 2016). For 2020, they selected something a touch more conventional in Classic Blue, a color they describe as capable of “Instilling calm, confidence, and connection…”

Laurie Pressman, the vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, explains that “It’s a color that anticipates what’s going to happen next. What’s the future going to bring as we move into the evening hours?”

It also represents the current zeitgeist, our shared cultural feelings, and a cool and calming color might be just what we need in turbulent times. “Typically, trends that we see in color are reflecting big macro trends that are taking place in culture,” said Pressman. Trends show themselves in art, travel, technology, and virtually every facet of modern life.

The Birth of a Standard

The Pantone company was born in 1963 in New Jersey. Its inaugural product was one of those rare sparks of ingenuity that only becomes explicable after the fact. No one knew they needed a reliable color matching system until there was one. Suddenly, every creative industry, from fashion to printing, realized they had been settling for inconsistent colors and needlessly limited options.

Another stroke of Pantone’s genius was an understanding of branding. The name of a thing affects how people experience it. “If you have a color called Brown Dirt, versus Chocolate Fudge, it takes on two completely different meanings,” explained Pantone’s Laurie Pressman. “The name really has to resonate with the message that we want to get across.”

It’s the same reason that restaurants describe their dishes with flowery phrases like “‘…handcrafted,’ ‘triple-basted,’ ‘slow-cooked,’ ‘grilled’ and ‘slammed with flavor.’” An interesting name is a game, it challenges participants to discover what its moniker means and whether it’s deserved.

For those reasons, the Pantone Matching System (PMS) has become the de facto standard across the world for organizing, profiling, selecting, and reproducing exact colors in both analog and digital media. It’s primary product is the Pantone Guide, a series of cardboard swatches bound in “fan decks,” which allow designers to select colors with the assurance that the end result will match exactly with their choice, regardless of who they select to produce it or what equipment that vendor or artisan uses.

For analog applications, Pantone colors are printed in the traditional CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow Black) gamut. Its more recent digital service is based on the RGB (Red Green Blue) color model that LCD and other electronic devices use to create images. That decision helped the company secure its place in the modern, online economy.

Can a Brand Own a Color?

Pantone gives each color a number. Classic Blue, the color of the year, for example, is PMS 4052. That level of standardization has enabled companies and even governments to enshrine their branding choices in legal documents. Luxury brand Tiffany & Co. notably won exclusive rights to PMS 1837 (Robin’s Egg Blue) in 1998 for use in selling jewelry.

Andrea Davey, the senior vice president of global marketing at Tiffany told CNN that they jealously guard the rights to their pale blue boxes because they are in the “rare and enviable position [in which] consumers recognize the brand simply by seeing the color – even without any other brand identity.”

Other brands have tried to protect their own signature colors, such as when T-Mobile recently sued insurance company Lemonade for using Pantone Rhodamine Red U, calling the magenta color “the most important element of our corporate identity.” Lemonade countered that the trademark shouldn’t apply to them because they operate in a different industry. They also responded by launching a social media campaign around the hashtag #FreeThePink.

Whoever wins, one thing is clear: color is serious business.

Color Affects Everything

Color is a vital component in a brand identity. Specifically, it is part of a visual brand language, the unique design elements that differentiate brands from their competitors. The context for that color also matters. The shapes (rounded or hard-edged), materials (glossy or matte), typography (modern or vintage), and imagery (descriptive or conceptual) take on the attitude of the color that accompanies them.

A verbal brand language, the terms and phrases that speak for and about the brand, are another core component of a fully developed brand identity. In the most competitive brands, all of these elements work synergistically, reinforcing each other, adding another layer to the story that strengthens its impact and encourages lasting connections.

Great brands are like great friends, a familiar and welcomed sight amid a sea of strangers. The human ability to instantly recognize and recall colors, and to instinctively associate them with certain emotions and memories, makes color one of the most powerful tools in a neuromarketers toolbox.

In branding, consumers expect serious products will have muted, stately colors. Fun, lively products are assumed to be bright and dramatic. That’s why in placebo studies, sugar pills are colored to match the effect of the real drug it is filling in for: “Red, yellow, and orange are associated with a stimulant effect, while blue and green are related to a tranquilizing effect,” according to a researcher published in the British Medical Journal.

There isn’t a universal guide for human assumptions and emotional responses to colors. Different parts of the world may perceive the same color very differently. In the U.S., for example, colors are often associated with these emotions and concepts:

  • Red: Love, Excitement
  • Yellow: Happiness
  • Green: Envy, Nature
  • Blue: Peace, Masculinity
  • Pink: Sincerity, Femininity
  • Purple: Royalty
  • Brown: Ruggedness
  • Black: Grief, Sophistication
  • White: Purity, Simplicity

But in Germany, yellow is linked to jealousy; in Poland, purple indicates anger; and in China, red symbolizes good fortune.

Studies have also shown that ambient temperature can change how individuals perceive colors. People in warm climates often report greater partiality to cooler shades. Consider the lone McDonalds in Sedona, Arizona. It is the only of the chain’s more than 37,000 restaurants with arches that are green instead of golden.

Business Insider reported that city officials worried that the “…gold would clash with the surrounding red rocks, and opted for a more pleasing, soft blue.” The abundance of natural turquoise stones probably had something to do with the shade chosen, but so might the blistering Arizona summers.

Consistency is Key

Great branding relies on consistency. Awareness and trust requires repeated, unvarying communication. The listener or viewer must understand that there is only one correct interpretation for the signals you are sending them, the one that represents the brand most accurately and favorably.

At Hanlon, we put so much emphasis on seemingly small details, like establishing strict brand guidelines that delineate specific brand colors, for this very reason. Customers may not even consciously notice when a color is slightly darker or lighter than usual, but unconsciously it registers as flawed.

Across channels, online and off, the world’s most competitive brands nail down their core characteristics and implement them with near-military discipline, and color is unquestionably a core component.

Pantone won the early mover advantage by being the first company to realize that close is no substitute for exact when it comes to color.