When Color is the Branding Tool, Marketers to Draw Carefully

Marketers, and nonprofits especially, have long turned to color to help brand themselves. In the past few years, we’ve learned to associate the color pink with the fight against breast cancer and fundraising promotions for heart disease prevention usually feature red. Most recently, billboards  have been popping up in the Boston area to promote Project Purple, the Stand Up Against Substance Abuse Campaign, which is funded by basketball star Chris Herren.

In a recent piece in Advertising Age, Robert Zelnick, describes some of the corporate attempts to hijack a single color as a brand and the rulings of various courts as they have deliberated this matter over the years. The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on this topic more than once and Zelnick says  “single color can indeed be a brand, so long as the color is in no way functional and the public strongly associates the color and the specific advertiser's product.” Lawsuits in this field are common and justices are currently considering the extent of Christian Louboutin’s claim to own the concept of high-​heels with red soles.

Zelnick also has advice for marketers seeking to define their brand with a single color. His suggestions include the following:

  • Select the right color: In studying color theory, for example, consider which shade is associated with emotions the promoted product is meant to convey.
  • Analyze the industry: Marketers should review how competitors have used color in their promotions. They should also consider whether a specific color has been used for messaging in the industry.
  • Consult legal counsel: Embarking on any marketing campaign is expensive. Enterprises should seek trademark protection of their efforts before they begin spending money on promotions that could be contested by competitors.

The most important piece of advice Zelnick offers centers on creativity. Marketers who use color creatively as part of their message have much to gain, and he points to the way UPS engages consumers with its tagline – “What can Brown do for you?

The bottom line from Zelnick seems to be not whether you can control a color in your branding efforts but how you use the color as you communicate with your customers.

[Sources: Khroshidi, Eldon. Still Standing. Slamonline​.com. 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2012; Zelnick Robert. Rules for Protecting Your Brand’s Color. Adage​.com. 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2012] 
Kathy Crosett
Kathy is the Vice President of Research for SalesFuel. She holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Vermont and oversees a staff of researchers, writers and content providers for SalesFuel. Previously, she was co-​owner of several small businesses in the health care services sector.