How Sherwin-Williams Glorified Painting

Applying a second coat of marketing

In September 1941, on the eve of World War II, the Sherwin-Williams paint company took a gamble and introduced two new products: Kem-Tone, a water-based paint that company chemists had wisely prepared in anticipation of the government’s rationing of linseed oil; and Roller-Koater, a cylindrical sponge applicator (an industry first). When the war broke out, young men left to fight. Yet with houses on the home front needing their seasonal coat, millions of housewives and grandparents found themselves painting for the first time. As a result, Sherwin-Williams inadvertently helped to create the modern home-improvement category.

It’s a sociological trend on suitably colorful display in the ads shown here. The fact that the ads look nothing like each other is evidence of the maturation of DIY—that is to say, a literal advertising approach has grown into a figurative one.

“In 1946, as America was building the new suburban frontier, much of what people saw in advertising like this was looked upon as factual. It was meant to be practical, a how-to guide,” explained Joe DePreta, CMO of Pearl Media, a firm that specializes in large-format outdoor campaigns. The fact that painting one’s own house was a new and unfamiliar thing made the task more important than the product or its colors. It’s why the older ad is purely expository, showing how a variety of ordinary people used Sherwin-Williams’ various formulas (including Kem-Tone, which had sold 10 million gallons by this time) to coat everything from furniture to the front porch. Color choice? Well, it looks like yellow was pretty popular. But top of mind in 1946? Learning how to learn to use a roller.

Sixty-seven years later, nobody requires that kind of hand holding. Painting has become a $23 billion business, and 82 percent of Americans do it themselves. (Even those Real Housewives of Orange County threw a painting party in one episode last season.) It’s a bit dippy to say that Americans have grown “sophisticated” about a can of semi-gloss acrylic—but then again, haven’t they? If Sherwin-Williams didn’t believe the answer was yes, would it be using a device as purely symbolic as a Chinese paper dragon to show off its myriad color choices?

The point is that the selling of paint has grown up right along with suburbia. Fed on a 24/7 diet of house-beautiful shows on cable, we are, as a culture, house-proud, and the colors we choose symbolize the estates we dream about living in—even if they are just split-level ranches.

A corresponding shift in marketing, DePreta said, isn’t just inevitable, but smart. “The fantasy strategy in the 2013 ad is a stronger differentiator than the practical applications of yesteryear, especially against a more sophisticated audience,” he said. “Everyone believes he’s a design expert. Sherwin-Williams has done a good job of jumping beyond application. It’s not unlike a tire company selling safety instead of tread durability.”

Just as it did during the World War II era, the paint brand isn’t so much getting us excited about a chore as it is showing us the future.