For many marketers, color has become a key to brand identity By joan voight

We need to make brown cool.” It was only a passing comment by a UPS manager, complaining about his company’s old-fashioned image to staffers at The Martin Agency during a shoot for a 2000 Nascar promotion. But the idea of defining UPS by its unassuming color stuck with creative director Cliff Sorah and his colleagues, who have parlayed it into a campaign that makes brown a symbol of the company and its expanded services.

Studies of color psychology show brown connotes reliability, trust and humility; for UPS it now also stands for flexibility, innovation and progress with the tag, “What can brown do for you?” “We are using something familiar—the color of the client’s trucks—to tell consumers something new,” says Sorah.

Few marketers have laid claim to a color as dull and nondescript as the muddy brown of the UPS trucks. The color was chosen for the company’s cars in 1916—nine years after the delivery service was founded—to match the elegant brown and gold Pullman train cars of the era. “They can use brown all they want—no one else wants it,” says one senior art director, echoing many of his peers. But marketers are increasingly relying on color—especially nontraditional hues—as a way to stand out from the pack and enhance brand identity.

Before the late 1990s, color was usually assigned a minor role in advertising—it was far less important than images, words, shapes and music. Some say the shift began in 1997, when Ogilvy & Mather put a blue letterbox around its IBM commercials. It gave the spots a fresh and cinematic look, says Ogilvy’s Chris Wall, senior partner and executive creative director, and tied the work to the brand’s heritage, summed up in its nickname, Big Blue. It was also a simple way for IBM to mark its territory in the commercial blur.

“IBM’s move pushed clients to think about using color to show the flavor of their brand,” says Bob Moore, executive creative director at Publicis in the West, Seattle. At the same time, large corporations, accustomed to impressing consumers with their size and stability, were increasingly viewed as unfeeling conglomerates. Marketers needed to portray their brands as caring and easy to do business with, and turned to graphic elements to help convey that.

“[Companies] have to get off the corporate pedestal, come down from the hilltop and put their arms around customers,” says Will Ayres, managing director for creative at Enterprise IG in New York, brand consultants for Bank of America, Ford Motor Co. and De Beers, among others. Color is one way to communicate this, he says. Cingular’s orange jack and H&R Block’s bright green, for instance, anchor campaigns that emphasize friendly, flexible customer service.

Most brand consultants agree that color can be a powerful tool—”the dress of the brand,” as Cheryl Swanson, principal of brand consultancy Toniq, puts it. “It communicates viscerally and can get to the essence of a brand story,” she says, noting that people tend to remember colors and shapes first, then numbers and words. “You can achieve a lot with the clever use of color, stirring strong emotions.”

Color also can instantly differentiate commodities when there are no significant differences between the products—Coke has marked itself as the red brand and Pepsi as the blue in the cola wars. A loud color can be used to dominate over other brands, or it can be a high-contrast attention-grabber, such as Citibank’s red arc on a white background.

Color can also add a layer of meaning to the brand itself. The blue used in ads for American Express’ Blue smart credit card, for example, communicates status, technical innovation and ease of use, according to Gary Stilovich, Interbrand associate creative director.

Consumers are drawn to color. A study published in 2000 by Karen Fernandez, lecturer at University of Waikato in New Zealand, and Dennis Rosen, associate professor at the University of Kansas, showed that more readers looked at Yellow Pages ads that used color as a border or decoration. And when color echoed relevant marketing information—say, a florist specializing in roses showing a picture of a red rose—more people were prompted to read an ad and pick up the phone.

Mike Hughes, president and creative director at The Martin Agency, believes the UPS campaign marries the brand with brown in such a seamless manner. The client used to call itself “brown” internally, he says, but since the TV campaign launched in February 2002, customers have taken to calling their UPS delivery person Brownie or Mr. Brown. The lighthearted spots use Brown as a synonym for the company; actors in the role of business customers describe “Brown’s” logistics services and extol their benefits. Says one, “Other colors may be cute, but they don’t call you back.” The ads conclude with the tag on a brown screen next to UPS’ revamped brown and gold logo.

If you accept that color is one key to branding, the question then is, Which color? Just as Henry Ford would sell his customers a Model T in any color as long as it was black, until recently, major clients tended to agree to any color their agency chose as long as it was blue. Study after study shows that blue is America’s favorite color, representing leadership, dependability, loyalty, cleansing and the future. “To move clients from blue is uncomfortable,” says Enterprise IG’s Ayres. “Blue is still seen as enduring and global.”

The runner-up among clients has invariably been red, Americans’ second-favorite color. It traditionally represents aggressiveness, boldness, warmth and the life force. Besides Coke and Verizon, think Target, which sometimes fills the TV screen with its crimson bull’s-eye logo.

With the preponderance of blue and red, marketers are now tapping into a broader palette. Colors such as orange, green and pink may not be universally loved but are seen as more fresh and memorable.

Helping to fuel this shift is the growing multicultural audience in the U.S. African Americans and Hispanics lean more toward red and purple shades than Caucasians, and Asian Americans prefer orange and yellow more than other groups, according to a 2002 study by American Demographics and research firm BuzzBack. These consumers have helped acclimate the general market to brighter colors—lime green, say—as well as to more complex shades, such as deep maroon, according to color consultants.

Green and orange are “the weirder cousins of blue and red,” says Craig Markus, creative director at McCann-Erickson in New York, which uses green prominently in ads for Xbox, Microsoft’s videogame console. “Green is a difficult color that a lot of people don’t like. It is louder, hotter than blue.” For Xbox, it lends a “vibrant, techie, hip” identity that differentiates it from PlayStation’s blue and Nintendo’s purple.

For H&R Block, Landor Associates in New York changed the logo from a mild blue to a loud green in 2000 as one way to redefine the client, known for its tax-preparation work, as a financial services company. The green suggests “a sense of activity and a joyful, upbeat mood,” says ecd Richard Ford. Landor also used green, in combination with blue, in its design for Song, Delta Airline’s new discount service, to provide a fresh, bright identity, Ford says.

Cingular’s signature orange, introduced in 2000, distinguishes it from AT&T blue and Verizon red, and matches the “jubilant, friendly” feeling of the jack icon, says Charlie Miesmer, senior creative director on Cingular at BBDO. The client “wants to own orange,” he says, so BBDO uses it wherever possible. In recent TV and print ads, the tag “Cingular fits you best” and the product names are written in orange. Product labels in the ads use white type in orange bars.

Even less traditional is the vivid pink claimed by another wireless company, T-Mobile, which launched last July. Spots include bursts of pink between scenes and use pink type for the company name and the headline, “See. Send. Share.” The shade is as far from AT&T blue as you can get, says Publicis’ Moore, whose agency handles the account. He describes it as “bold and contemporary, with youth and vitality. It stands for your hipper friend, rather than AT&T, who is your grandmother.” And even if it led the wireless industry, T-Mobile would still see itself as more a “challenger magenta brand” than a stable blue, he says.

The risk is that cheeky colors may leave less margin for error. “If Cingular doesn’t do well, people might feel, ‘I knew it. They were too cute to be real,’ ” says Enterprise IG’s Ayres. But BBDO’s Miesmer counters, “It is not what color you use, but how you use it.”

Kodak’s marketing “was swimming in a nasty yellow” when San Francisco shop Eleven landed the client’s digital-camera account two years ago, says Paul Curtin, creative director and co-chairman. Now the shop’s work still uses the signature yellow and red, but only in a small logo; large photos and generous white space dominate.

UPS’ embrace of its heritage color has so far shown mixed results. In a little over a year, the campaign appears to be boosting the company’s logistics services but has had little effect on its core package-delivery business. In the first quarter, logistics revenue was up by 11.4 percent to $693 million and profit nearly doubled, compared with the same period last year. But U.S delivery revenue gained just 2 percent to $6 billion, with profit sinking 18 percent.

Given the cultural and emotional baggage of colors, can brown possibly mean progress and innovation? “It’s a stretch,” says consultant Swanson. “You can take a color only so far.”

Yet Swanson dismisses the creative directors who argue that one brand color can easily be substituted for another, while a great idea or a well-told story cannot. “Ask yourself, would Citibank’s ads say the same thing if the arc was blue? Would Campbell’s soup sell if the can was blue and white?” says Swanson. “Then tell me color doesn’t matter.”