Saturday, March 31, 2007

Can brands own colours?

According to marketing lore, it was once possible for a single brand to 'own' a colour; Coca Cola owned red, IBM owned blue, UPS owned brown (or so the legend goes). Regardless of whether this was ever really the case, it certainly ain't true now. Our globalised, digital world has more brands, shouting more loudly, across more media, than ever before.

Not that all companies have given up on the dream of owning a colour globally. Vodafone still seems pretty set on wresting red from Coke's clutches (with some success according to Martin Lindstrom’s 2005 book Brand Sense, in which he claims 30% of UK consumers now associate red with Vodafone, compared with 22% for Coke). The fight for red has been further complicated by the entry of (PRODUCT)RED last year, which is hoping to own red across multiple sectors. That said, most companies have moved away from a goal of universal colour ownership and relocated the battle for colour supremacy to their own market sector.

Exhibit A is the 2005 legal dispute between Orange and easyGroup over the use of Pantone 151. Both companies had been using the distinctive shade of orange since the mid-90s, but it wasn't until Stelios announced the launch of the now-defunct easyMobile in 2004 that the mobile operator called in the lawyers; unsurprising when you consider that colour is the tacitly agreed brand differentiator amongst the mobile operators, where blue is synonymous with O2, magenta with T-Mobile, orange with, er, Orange and red with Vodafone (sorry Virgin). 3 opted out of the colour war by creating a chameleon logo, which employs different colours in different contexts.

Exhibit B is an Australian court action brought by Darrell Lea Chocolate Shops against confectionary giant Cadbury Schweppes last year. The judge found in favour of Darrell Lea concluding that "Cadbury does not own the colour purple and does not have an exclusive reputation in purple in connection with chocolate in Australia". Whilst Cadbury may have lost in court and been forced to amend the trademark claims on its packaging, it remains indelibly associated with purple in the minds of chocolate-loving consumers.

All of which is a precursor to asking whether it is possible to own a colour in the online space. My instinct is no - there are just too many competing brands. Strong colour/brand association is possible amongst UK mobile operators because there are only half a dozen of them. Likewise, cigarette companies successfully carved up the colours amongst them because there was a limited number of brands, enabling them to take out billboard ads or sponsor Formula One cars primarily on the strength of colour association (purple meant Silk Cut, gold meant Benson & Hedges, red meant Marlboro, black meant John Player Special).

However, the barriers to entry (and by extension, brand creation) on the web are so low that even in the same market sector, companies seem to have accepted the futility of attempting to own a single colour. The practicalities of web design may also feed into this; it's fine for Vodafone's full-page print ads and billboards to be almost entirely red, but that wouldn't work on its website (unless it was aiming to make its visitors' eyes bleed).

If ownership of a single colour is unattainable on the web, how about a particular combination of colours? Graham Beale got the ball rolling on this with a colour scheme montage posted on his blog, Hold and Modify. However, of the 15 represented, I could identify just 2 (Flickr and Blogger). Whilst Graham assures me that his fellow web designers were able to name many more, I think it's fair to infer that Joe Public wouldn't.

Interestingly, the one site which comes closest to achieving colour ownership on the web for me is which has had almost 10 years to stake its claim on a particularly aggressive shade of pink. Shown a swatch in isolation (or in a pink line-up with Smile and T-Mobile) I reckon I would be able to identify it, although that may just be the subliminal impact of their weekly newsletter in my inbox.

Whilst colour will undoubtedly remain a critical element of brand identity, both on and offline, I wonder if it's moving lower down in the mix as the marketplace becomes increasingly crowded and colour ownership is redefined as a pipe dream from a bygone era (the mythology is that Coke began its ownership of red in the 1950s by changing the colour of Santa's suit from green). The democratisation of branding, facilitated by the Internet, has blown the lid off the notion of colour exclusivity and marketing will need to become more sophisticated in response.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I think colour seems important, in an era where we talk about integration. But integration is much more than everything looking the same, and being the same colour. It is arguably more important to behave the same way in the digital space.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Nice stuff. I found a cool news widget for our blogs at Now I can show the latest news on my blog. Worked like a breeze.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.