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Why colour is key in branding

When Charles Tiffany and John Young, creators of the jewellery brand Tiffany, chose a particular colour blue for the front cover of Tiffany’s first Blue Book way back in 1837, no-one could have imagined that 135 years later, it would be recognised globally – even without the use of a logo.

Not even the iconic image of a young Audrey Hepburn admiring a Tiffany’s window in New York can overshadow the power of the trademarked Tiffany Blue®, which was eventually adopted for all of Tiffany’s packaging and branding.

True to the founder’s vision, the Tiffany Blue Box® is as much an icon of luxury and exclusivity as it was over a century ago. As The New York Sun reported in 1906, “[Charles Lewis] Tiffany has one thing in stock that you cannot buy off him for as much money as you may offer; he will only give it to you. And that is one of his boxes”.

The value of an ownable colour is that it can be applied across a broader range of touchpoints: the background of an image on Instagram, a splash of storefront pizzazz, a collaboration beyond the brand itself, a metaverse asset or sponsorship.

Successfully ‘owning’ a colour is a big deal. Here are some things to consider when you’re trying to mark out an ownable colour territory for your brand.


Own the colour

Pantone has managed to carve out a niche as owners, creators, trendsetters and reporters of all things colour. 

Colour is big business, and whether it’s claiming a pre-existing Pantone or creating a whole new shade, as with Valentino’s summer campaign featuring Pink PP, we’re seeing more and more brands dive into the trend.

From Whippet’s own research, it seems there are two ways for you or your company to “have” your own colour.

The first is to purchase a unique shade, bearing in mind that only two people have ever purchased their own custom-made Pantone colour: Jay-Z, the influential (and mega rich) hip hop artist/producer, and Sherry Chris, CEO of Better Homes and Garden Realty.

Purchasing your own colour means creating an entirely new colour, and both Jay-Z and Sherry brought items to Pantone to inspire their vision. Sherry brought a much-loved pink scarf, Jay-Z a blue piece of his old motorcycle. Both worked closely with Pantone’s trained chemist and technicians for several weeks and paid tens of thousands of dollars to get their custom colour just right.

The more common way to ‘have’ your own colour is through trademark rights. Tiffany & Co not only trademarked their famous robin egg blue, through the process of working with  Pantone to find just the right colour they were looking for, the colour was granted a custom Pantone number – 1873, the year the company was founded.

Several other companies have trademarked a shade they became known for, staking their claim on a particular colour. UPS brown, Barbie pink, T-Mobile magenta, and canary yellow 3M Sticky Notes are just a few of the more recognisable claimed colours. 

Keells Supermarkets

Showing your competitors your true colours

A contrasting, ownable colour can instantly distinguish you from competitors playing in the same space.

Think of the big three Australian supermarket chains: Red for Coles, green for Woolies and blue for Aldi.

When it came time for the Whippet team to give Keells supermarkets a rebrand, we saw their current red colour wasn’t helping them stand out from their leading competitor in Sri Lanka. So we took it bright, bold and green.

The distinctive green not only gave them a visual point of difference and an ownable colour scheme, it also helped support their push to communicate their freshness and quality credentials. Green is seen as healthy, clean and vibrant, and the whole Colombo colour scheme evoked associations with the fresh food markets of Sri Lanka, helping change the perceptions of the Sri Lankan consumers about supermarket produce.

Colour me legal

Claiming a Pantone colour can also stand you in good stead if any legal concerns arise. But it’s still tricky territory. How much red makes a Louboutin? Turns out, just the sole. And only when used as a contrasting colour. When Louboutin tried to bring legal action against Yves Saint Laurent for a pair of red shoes, the court ruled that the protection of ‘Louboutin red’ only applied to a lacquered red shoe bottom when the upper shoe was a contrasting colour – not an all-red shoe. But still, the distinctive contrasting red used in that way had a powerful enough association in the minds of customers to be worth protecting. Clever Mattel made sure their Barbie pink could be applied beyond the toy category by owning it across a range of products, from cereal to clothing. Cadbury wasn’t so lucky in their much-publicised case against Nestle. That famous Cadbury purple? Yeah, turns out it’s only part-protected, depending on the country. After a 10-year legal dispute over the UK exclusive rights to Pantone 2685C, Cadbury lost.


When you’ve got it, flaunt it

As designers, we all know the temptation to want to tweak a colour in certain executions but we stick to the rule that repetition and consistency equal recognition. Using a colour consistently over time will eventually lead to recognition and become a clever shorthand for your business. Brands like IKEA, JB HI-FI and Anaconda use this strategy very successfully. So when you’re planning a brand or contemplating a brand refresh take the time and get the right advice on your strategy and never underestimate the power of colour.


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