Breaking Down the Significance Behind Pantone's Color of the Year

Classic blue is traditional yet stable and comforting

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Earlier this month, Pantone revealed its 2020 color of the year: classic blue. Blue, the world’s favorite color, is associated with a slew of attributes: trust and dependability, innovation and creativity, safety and serenity, intelligence—the list goes on.

While it seems to be an unusually safe choice as color of the year, in today’s current environment of sociopolitical uncertainty, blue presents a strong, steadfast, calming narrative. As the common denominator for some of the biggest tech companies that emerged in the new millennium, blue has been used in brand design to both disrupt the status quo and establish the new digital economy.

But looking at a few recent major IPOs, like Lyft, Pinterest and Peloton, some future-forward brands are making bolder color choices. To determine why, it’s helpful to look at the significance of blue in brand design.

Looking back

With the explosion of new entrants into the market, color is often a way to stand out and apart from the crowd.

On the flags of some of the world’s dominant powers, in police uniforms and jeans, blue is a utility color that signals institutional trust and safe, measured progress. From Ford to the “Big Blue” of IBM and Blue Cross Blue Shield to AT&T, blue sets the tone of the reliable establishment.

For these institutional era companies, the brand was a one-way conversation, owned by neither the customer nor the employees. Public trust was firmly rooted in the company as an institution. For these companies, blue as a choice made sense. It projected predictable dependability, stability and logic.

Then, as more companies shifted from a manufacturing base to a marketing platform and the digital marketplace became the new Main Street, customers put their trust in people, not institutions. Brands tried to mirror the authenticity and spontaneity of a more socially diverse, connected world. This personal level connection that often took place on screen required personality through more expressive language, a differentiated color palette showcased in logos, functional experience and broader communications.

So, when the tech disruptors stepped onto the scene (Facebook, Salesforce, Skype), their use of a traditional color seemed like an interesting choice. Did they represent a step back to corporate dominance and institutional values? Perhaps blue reflected the measured logic of an engineering culture or the symbol of blue-sky thinking. In this era where success for these startups was an uncertainty, a universally liked and reliable color would certainly have put their investors at ease.

A saturated market

These days, our current environment of proliferation is a potential driver of color palette diversity. For every current or former blue leader, we’ll see a red, green, yellow or pink competitor. These challengers are seeking to amplify their position through color. And with lower barriers to entry, the world’s workforce is now full of people with side hustles hoping to be the next Facebook, Amazon or Chobani.

With the explosion of new entrants into the market, color is often a way to stand out and apart from the crowd, signaling a differentiated set of services or, increasingly, values. We saw this with the new establishment like Google and Microsoft when they embraced a bright but conventional color mix for their logo and materials palette to stand out from the blue legacy of the IBMs and AT&Ts. Newer brands like Jet and Lyft are now pushing beyond the safe primaries, choosing to disrupt with bright RGB purples, pinks and jarring color combinations.

We’ll continue to see this as younger, design-led companies spring up in new geographic markets, expressing their cultural differences and introducing open color palettes that can look and feel more innovative and creative, like the people they hope to connect with.

Still sticking around

As the world’s favorite color, blue’s position as the default color choice isn’t going away. Functionally, its darker shades are accessible onscreen, and blue pairs well with others. Emotionally, with a challenging sociopolitical environment, the distrust of government and our institutions, blue suggests calming stability.

But as brands dig deeper into their purpose, there is an opportunity for their color approach to take on more meaningful significance. Beneath every national flag there is an origin story that goes deeper than a personal choice or likability. Like our favorite sports teams, color can rally a radically diverse audience when given a deeper emotional underpinning rooted in a bigger ideal.