The relevance of brand colors are redundant, it’s all about differentiation
Abhik Choudhury, Chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting
What do Volkswagen, Volvo, Tata, Ford and GM have in common?

The relevance of brand colors are redundant, it’s all about differentiation

What do Volkswagen, Volvo, Tata, Ford and GM have in common?
  • Abhik Choudhury, Chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting writes how brands colors are now both category and audience agnostic.
  • He further shares a few reasons behind this paradigm shift.

What do Volkswagen, Volvo, Tata, Ford and GM have in common? They all are reliable family cars with blue logos. How about KFC, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King? They all are global fast food chains with either or both, red and yellow in their identities. And till about a decade ago, it was all fine and dandy till digital content clutter multiplied our brand exposure to a whopping 5000+ on an average day. And that meant the compelling need for acute differentiation over everything else.

Let’s look at the topical industry of the year - EdTech. The whole industry came into being post digital burst. And in their identities, whilst catering to the same audiences their approach to brand colors couldn’t have been more drastically contrasting. Byju, India’s second most valuable startup at $10Bn adorns a bright purple, something which experts used to put in the segment of richness and royalty. Udemy with its coral shade usually seen in lifestyle brands has intentionally moved away from its launch color of grass green. Coursera on the other end of the spectrum is safely engulfed in the reliable blue (think sweet spot between the old and new Facebook color). And finally look at Khan Academy, a blend of sea green and ocean blue.

I would argue brands colors are now both category and audience agnostic. And there are four reasons for this major paradigm shift.

The Differentiation Paradox: Of course the trained mind might argue the above example is just an anomaly so let’s go back to the automobile category we opened our discussion with to see this point through. In the last decade, the new electric car segment is slowly overpowering old heavyweights. What’s interesting though is as much as these shiny, new kids stand for the same brand promise of blending sleek style, sustainability and automation, their colors try to intentionally stay as apart as possible. Leading the pack Tesla shines in its signature passion red, Faraday Future graces the color of powerplay jet black, Fisker has famously named its brand colors California sunset (orange) and Pacific ocean (blue), the Chinese born Byton decks a more luxurious grey and the adventure friendly Rivian chose orangish yellow.

Superdry’s orange boasts of its fun and bold collection, Zara’s black promotes the high street range inspired by luxury fashion weeks. And why not, as the concept of brand colors needed to be synonymous with the “brand experience”. Now though, the audience is aware enough to know that just because Grab taxis are green, they don’t only move with an oil free, electric fleet.

Honestly, as long as the story behind your choice of brand color is believable you can paint the canvas with whatever you wish for. Breaking the traditional need for popping colors, Unilever’s new age Talenti Gelato comes in a pure transparent identity to just focus on the product and cut the clutter in the ice cream shelf simultaneously. Ola, India’s answer to Uber uses an exclusive pear color something eponymous with sporty, not exactly a massy cab service using Wagon R & Swift Dzire cars. But does it work? Quite brilliantly actually, the point of differentiation is well made and well reaped.

The Niche Maze

Before the digital era, market penetration used to be mostly about what the masses demanded. And honestly rightfully so, for neither there was internet to measure the size of niche interests nor a way to get them delivered online to spurt segments scattered all over. And what it has resulted in is making colors more unisex, boldly unique and universally acceptable. Lyft’s Magenta and Dunzo’s Mint Green paves way for many more to come in the coming decade.

Let’s try to understand the repercussions of not having niche colors. In the Indian media ecosystem look at the known brands Zee News, NDTV, ABP News, Republic, Aaj Tak, BBC Hindi, The Wire and Firspost ALL have red in their logos. Let’s forget for a second if all these brands have similar personalities, experience or values of the color red. Let’s rather say in 2021 you want to start a media corporation catering to millennials. Don’t you think a berry blue or sunshine yellow will give you a niche identity distinctively apart from all your industry peers and make the consumer immediately associate you with the color no matter on which medium it is used?

Reliance Jio certainly would have considered it while starting to slowly move towards Persian blue from its bright red similar to core competitors Airtel and Vodafone. So would have AirBnB while choosing a coral shade over their old blue similar to Booking’s identity.

The relevance of brand colors are redundant, it’s all about differentiation

Content Overload: One of the most profitable industries inarguably today is the smartphone hub with over 1.5Bn average annual unit sales and still a long way in penetrating the global population. No matter where you are from, you can’t deflect from its plethora of content across platforms. Oppo and Vivo with their selfie camera positioning had planned a budget of INR 2200 crores for the Indian market to dwarf Samsung at its own game. Xiaomi, who finally did overthrow Samsung poured INR 3500 crores last year aiming at an even more aggressive advertising strategy. All pointing towards an inevitable content war subtly numbing the audiences to all headlines and creatives. And hence you see Xiaomi goes with a blazing orange, Oppo graces forest green, One Plus Christmas red, Google Pixel a more humbling grey to Apple’s black while Vivo goes for sailor blue. We aren’t talking about one off anomalies that used to happen in every category like Ferrari’s legendary lemon yellow backdrop whilst Audi, Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Jaguar & Lexus all go with the same kind of logo in metallic elements on their cars. These smartphone examples are of all category leaders and none come close to the other’s color no matter how close their audience, personality and brand experience might be.

Now one of the major brand identity tests is to create a fictional character with a rich personality to match with your corporation’s values, vision and heart. The catch is, it only works if your audience feels that metaphor coming alive too. Otherwise as you will agree, every horse breeder can sell a Unicorn. And with all due respect the 2020s audiences have evolved from all color tones (and it’s kind of fair if not lovely). Now they are more interested and invested in what you actually do both with your offering and beyond it for the overall society. They know how to filter the frills from the flowers.

Typography before color: The formula is minimal typography for maximum impact. Uber tweaked its logo element to a bolder no nonsense font of its name. Indian food delivery pioneers have removed their famous spoon and now just have Zomato written in a thicker and slightly curved style. The legendary Absolut Vodka which had a designer cursive line - ‘Country of Sweden’ in the logo itself has switched to just a navy blue Absolut enjoying the solitude. Visa has removed the card element last decade and even fired the fiery yellow edge to allow blue to engulf all of its typography on this one. Dominos have hit puberty late but by making the name come out of the inclined box they now demand complete attention. IHop, Dunkin... the list honestly keeps going on but the verdict is clear. Clarity of your name in the logo, something that can be read in a nanosecond during a digital post or banner is what works today. And when pure simplicity takes absolute precedent, intricate elements, three tone color schemes and parallel mascots take a backseat. Bold is the new black and clarity is the new color.

Millennials demand this world to stop seeing colors, at least without any preconceived prejudices. And if anything the creative industry should be elated with this transformation, one less box to fit into. Let the old labels make way for legacy. If only the world would start having bold brands who can make shirts for men and call it pink. Oh wait, we already do - Pink Shirtmaker, London owned by the Louis Vuitton group.

By Abhik Choudhury, Chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting. He is also a visiting faculty of Market Research and Campaign Planning at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. You can reach him at abhik@saltandpaper.co.