Can you build a brand around colour?

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In this enlightened age of marketing, few people will be clinging to the idea that a brand is just a logo or a colour. So, on the face of it, Cadbury’s victory over Nestlé, giving them trademark protection on the colour purple, Pantone 2865c, may seem a little trite. The same might be said of Christian Louboutin, which successfully campaigned against Yves Saint Laurent for the exclusive rights to make shoes with a China Red sole. Is it not more important for these brands to be investing in developing richer brand propositions and more creative ideas, and bringing them alive in more engaging, innovative ways?

The answer is yes, but not exclusively. Because to ignore the importance of distinctive brand identities is to ignore a fundamental point: they are essential to consumer choice.

This is a deeper matter than distinguishing between different items on-shelf but has to do with how the human brain decides. For example, a study of taste-tests between Coca-Cola versus Pepsi, published in the journal Neuron in 2004, used magnetic resonance imagery to show that not only do consumers choose differently when they know which brand they are drinking (75% choose Coke) than when ‘blind’ (an even split) but the visual identity of Coca-Cola triggered activity in an entirely different area of the brain than for Pepsi. The visual stimulus triggered a neurological response – and a decision – that, in this case, overrode taste. To extrapolate more widely: brand identity is more than a corporate label, it is a neurological mnemonic that influences what we think and how we behave. 

So, dismiss the role of colour at your peril. This isn’t a debate about shades of purple or red, it’s a debate about what the promise and meaning of the brands really is. 

But asking colour, alone, to deliver this depth of meaning is a big ask. For it to be achieved the colour must surely be associated to a wider narrative that it brings to mind. Hermès, for example, makes abundant use of orange in its products and identity, reflecting the distinctive shade of leather from its origins as a saddlery brand. Jaguar, for a while, sought ownership of British Racing Green (for obvious reasons) – an ambition scuppered only by the fact that every other automotive brand with its origins in Britain periodically tries the same. For Louboutin, one can at least imagine a narrative wherein the red sole represents a fiery passion beneath the sophisticated face. For Cadbury the story seems to be one of historical consistency. That might seem a little dull by comparison, but such a premise has worked perfectly well for Tiffany’s robin’s egg blue (PMS 1837, trademarked) since 1845. 

But connecting a colour to a brand story takes more than ink, pixels and lawyers. Even if the story is there in the background it needs to be brought to the fore. Contemporary brands aren’t about static logos and vast swathes of colour, they are about multi-faceted experiences that span not just the marketing mix but the product and service offer, internal culture and business strategy of the brand-owner’s organisation. Apple did not become the world’s most valuable brand because it chose to own white, it did so because it developed and delivered a holistic proposition in which just about everything, including the colour, was right. 

For Cadbury, the value of owning purple only comes when it is symbolic of a broader brand experience that delights consumers at every level – and in that, they will need to continuously invest.

Brands have every right to protect their distinctive identities and it can be argued that it is in the consumer’s best interest that they do. But owning a colour is just one small part of the journey towards building a successful brand. In the final analysis it’s not ownership of the colour that matters, it’s the conscious and sub-conscious impressions that it brings to mind.

First published in Marketing, 10 October 2012, in response to a High Court ruling giving Cadbury trademark protection for a colour in relation to certain products.