Noah Brier | November 2, 2021

The Signature Color Edition

On brands, ownership, and associations

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Noah here. A few weeks ago Aston Martin announced that they were going to tweak their car color for the 2022 season. “I think it's a stunning color in the sun and when you're looking at it in person,” Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer explained. “But I believe we should be looking at making it pop a little more on television, without losing the green when you're looking at its outside.” 

There’s nothing remarkable about making aesthetic adjustments season-to-season. It’s particularly true for a manufacturer like Aston Martin, who races in their signature color: British racing green. This has been the color of racing in the United Kingdom for over 100 years. Its history dates back to the early-1900s when different countries were allotted colors as part of the Gordon Bennett Cup. While there’s some debate as to how the British entry ended up green, it’s likely some combination of other flag colors already taken (America had red, Germany white, and France blue) and a nod to Ireland, where the 1903 race was held.

Why is this interesting? 

In the world of cars, you have hues like McLaren “papaya” and Bugatti blue. But first to everyone’s mind is Ferrari red. In the 90s, 85 percent of Ferrari’s sold were red and today that number is just under half. While it’s not the only shade, the most-associated color with the manufacturer is “​​Rosso Corsa” or racing red.

Really owning a color as a brand is one of the hardest things to do in marketing. You have a few standouts like Tiffany blue, Hermès orange, and WITI favorite Financial Times salmon. And then you have brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Home Depot who have done a pretty good job associating themselves with their own hue. Many of these companies have even trademarked their signature color, like Post-It yellow, UPS brown, and, maybe most interestingly, Owens-Corning pink. If you’re scratching your head for the last one, here’s a visual cue to help:

The material’s manufacturer even had to defend its color trademark, with an appeals court eventually deciding that the company’s thirty-year use of the color plus the fact that there’s no technical reason insulation needs to be pink, meant that it had a right to own its shade.

All of this fits the Byron Sharp/How Brands Grow worldview that brands need to focus on distinctiveness over all else. The power of this kind of association goes beyond just being able to spot it on the shelves, and can actually shape the experience people have with the product. A decade ago when Coca-Cola released some white holiday cans they had to end the experiment early because beyond being misidentified as Diet Coke, consumers said the stuff actually tasted different. Nothing inside the can had changed, but the color association ran so deep that it affected the perceived taste

Like a lot of things in the world of big brands, owning a color is great if you can pull it off but aspirational to all but the biggest and most successful brands. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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