By Chuck Kapelke
When the marketing team at Chobani decided to overhaul its Greek yogurt brand in 2017, they reconsidered everything from product packaging to tone of voice.
"Chobani was being imitated heavily in the marketplace, and competition had exploded," says Leland Maschmeyer, chief creative officer at Chobani. "We needed to reimagine the brand to create that differentiation and establish the credibility for us to move into new categories."
As part of the update, the company developed a new color palette it hoped would differentiate Chobani's products and reinforce its brand platform, "Good Food Has Great Power." The company shied away from hues like light purple — often used to signal a low-sugar product in the yogurt category — because "using the same color would have been detrimental to shelf navigation for the consumer," Maschmeyer says. Instead, the brand built its new identity around natural colors including forest green, milk chocolate, and geranium.
"Color is a major signal, a major part of how we choose what we eat," Maschmeyer says. "We needed to use a color palette that was found in nature to signal the natural characteristics of our products. They are colors that speak to the romanticism and magicality that we are trying to associate with the narrative we tell about our food."
Once chosen, the colors were integrated into every facet of the company's internal and external marketing, from employee handbooks and signage in factories to product packaging and digital advertising.
There are good reasons why companies like Chobani invest time and resources in their brands' color palette, says Leslie Harrington, Ph.D., a color strategist with the Color Marketing Group. "Color is the sense that triggers an emotional response with the consumer, whether it be on a store shelf, online, or shopping in the store; it makes a big difference," she says. "Color has often been left until the end of the process, but more companies are making it part of the design, marketing, and strategy process."
While color is important, it can also feel abstract and arbitrary. How should marketers think about color in the digital age? What's the role of color in the age of social media? Should brands jump on the bandwagon of trendy colors? These are increasingly crucial questions when it comes to brand identity.
Consistency Is King
Global shipping giant DHL operates 84,000 service points in 220 countries, but regardless of location, the two primary colors on the company's signage — Post Yellow and DHL red — remain consistent. The same colors are also used in all of DHL's digital and print advertising, not to mention its 34,100 vehicles and 260 aircraft.
Chobani's color palette is intended to convey a connection to nature, and eschews bright pinks or other colors that might signal artificial flavoring. Courtesy of Chobani
"Color plays a principal role in helping to visually distinguish the DHL brand — as much [as] or more than typography and imagery," says Joseph Siegel, senior director, brand, digital, and creative strategy at DHL Express America. "In fact, it's our colors, and not necessarily our logo, that makes us one of the most recognizable brands on the planet … Consumers all over the world recognize our brand without ever having to see our logo."
DHL has not changed its colors since 2003, and any adjustment to specifications for different applications is to ensure the colors are presented in the "most optimal, pleasing, and consistent manner," Siegel says. "The equity in the visual connection we have built with our audience over the past 16 years continues to build to this day and, as such, there is absolutely no appetite to evolve or reexamine our color strategy." He adds, "Brands can sometimes be too eager to 're-brand' with new colors or new design. It takes time to establish visual brand equity, and most companies would be better off to exercise patience."
Key Takeaway: Some of the most iconic brands — including Tiffany, Coca-Cola, and UPS — have endured through the decades by picking a color and sticking with it. "The trick is to be able to find a color that allows you to differentiate yourself in the market, a color that is ownable and in some cases even trade-markable, and aligns with what the brand stands for," Harrington says.
Color Is Complementary
While consistency is important, using color effectively also requires nuance for different audiences and contexts. "A black pill in India is considered perfectly fine, but in the United States, it would be considered an illegal narcotic," Harrington says. "Global brands have to be really careful about that cultural bias that a color might have."
Brand managers can develop guidelines to inform how they use their color palette in different contexts. For example, Mailchimp, a popular email platform, has established four categories for thinking about when and how to use its primary color — Cavendish Yellow (named after a type of banana) — and when to rely more on secondary and complementary colors. "Brands need to live and be malleable in terms of where consumers are, rather than being a static guardrail," says Gene Lee, SVP of CX and design at Mailchimp. "It's how you work across those various touchpoints that really resonates."
For its "core" marketing, such as the company's website and business cards, Mailchimp uses Cavendish Yellow in heavy doses. The "familiar" tier, or when a consumer is already logged on to its app, might feature a more minimalist stripe of yellow. For the "surprising" tier — such as if the company sponsors a float in a Gay Pride Parade — the yellow is dialed back further. And for the "expressive" category, which includes internal employee communications, Mailchimp's marketers play around the edges with edgier concepts and color schemes.
"In core, we want to dial it up, and at the expressive end, we dial it down," Lee says. "Instead of consistency, the word I usually use is harmony. Given the context of where color's showing up, how do you use it where it feels like the family of the brand?"
Key Takeaway: Owning a core set of colors is important, but brands should not be too rigid and consider color in the same way for all usages and audiences. "Color is contextual," Harrington says. "People might say, 'red evokes love,' but the question is, does red mean love when it's on a car, or on a pair of shoes? The reality is that for every product you develop, a color probably means something different."
As with most things, colors tend to come into fashion — and fall out. Marketers should keep an eye on broader trends for insights into consumer preferences while still holding on to their core color identity. "You can have some real coups if you get the right color at the right time," Harrington says.
With its repository of hundreds of of millions of stock images, Shutterstock has troves of data about what images its customers are downloading, and the company issues annual reports on what colors are likely to be in demand during the upcoming year. (The company also has an online guide to nearly 200 colors.) "Our customers are usually working on campaigns that are coming up, so we know these are in-demand colors that people are going to be looking for," says Flo Lau, associate creative director at Shutterstock.
In 2018, Shutterstock predicted an emerging creative trend called "Yesterday's Tomorrow" based in part on the increase in searches for keywords like "synthwave" and "retrowave." The annual color trends report reflected this in its findings by identifying the three fastest-growing colors in popularity as Proton Purple, UFO Green, and Plastic Pink. "The entire trend is futuristic, neonish, Fifth Element, what people in the '80s and '90s thought the future would look like," Lau says. Sure enough, she says, the colors showed up in everything from Prada's spring 2019 fashion line to ads for the movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu.
"With social platforms, everything's very saturated with eye-catching materials, and if you're creating materials that you want to catch people's eyes, your material has to stand out," Lau says. "Using colors is one of the most important visual elements you can use. We tend to use a lot of bright colors because we want to sell our visual materials at Shutterstock. But I have seen other brands that use simple black and white — with high contrast and minimal visual treatment — and those can also work well on social platforms."
While sticking to its brand color of red, Shutterstock uses A/B tests to identify whether changing the colors of buttons affects consumer behavior. "We are not going to do A/B tests to change our logo, but we use it for some of the UI interface materials," Lau says. "Whichever drives the most clicks and conversion, that's the winner for us."
Key Takeaway: Companies can draw lightly on trendy colors to generate a perception of relevance, but it's best to find ways to make your own colors pop in unexpected ways. "From a branding standpoint, you have to pick the right color for your brand's personality and then go with it, and try not to make too many changes based on the trends," Lau says. "It's your brand here, and if you make changes too many times, people will stop recognizing it."
Muse on Hues
The Pantone color system is used by more than 10 million designers and producers to ensure color consistency, and the Pantone Color Institute provides customized color standards, brand identity, and color consulting. ANA magazine spoke with Laurie Pressman, VP at the Pantone Color Institute, to muse on hues. (Responses have been edited.)
Q. Are there any recent trends or shifts in the color palette that might be of interest to marketers?
There are always a multitude of trends happening and the colors a marketer may want to use will depend upon the space they are playing in. On a macro level, colors from nature, including blues and greens as well as earth tones (russets, browns, taupes), continue their importance. These natural shades reflect our desire to immerse ourselves in what is real, as well as our desire for honesty and transparency. Bright and vibrant shades communicating our need for positivity also continue to be strong. Metallics instantly engage the eye and we are seeing a strong showing of metallics in both color and core metal shades across the spectrum. Lastly, soft colors continue. In a world rocked with overstimulation, these softer mid-tone shades convey the warmth and comfort we are seeking.
Q. How should brand managers think about color?
Color conveys a message [and] instantly announces who you are. Brand managers should not treat color as an afterthought and instead should leverage the power of color, treating color as a pivotal element of a design strategy … I can only stress to brand managers to make their color choices thoughtfully and make sure that their color choices further enhance their brand visual identity so that the message they present to their audience is cohesive.
Q. What are some best practices for marketers when it comes to color?
Here's a list of questions we would typically ask brands whom we consult with to provide color direction: What message do you want to convey and how can color help you tell the story? If you are targeting a global audience, will local cultural meanings be ascribed to the colors used? What is it about the brand (including color) that will prompt a "buy" response in your targeted consumer? Should you use a more unusual color story? With so many products in the market, will the colors you have chosen separate you from your competition?