Perspective: Color My World

When it comes to making a mass-produced device your own, hues do the trick

It may come as a surprise to brands spending millions on focus groups that the best marketing ideas are often ones that have been around forever. Case in point: giving the consumer a choice of his or her own “personal” color. While it seems like shoppers have had such options forever, the story really begins in 1923, when DuPont introduced a nitrocellulose lacquer for metal called Duco—the first industrial spray-on paint that was cheap, quick-drying, and came in a rainbow of colors. Automakers jumped on the stuff. So did typewriter brands.

Thanks to the advent of even better finishes, color choice fast became an irreplaceable component of the marketing process. But while not everyone cares about the color of his washing machine, it’s a different story when it comes to communication devices. Why? If someone’s going to spend the bulk of his waking hours pecking away on some gadget, he probably wants it to look nice. Though there’s far more to the psychology of color than that.

“Whether you’ve bought your first typewriter or your first iPad, you get a feeling of empowerment and self-actualization,” observes Ravi Sawhney, CEO of industrial-design firm RKS, which has produced everything from washing machines for LG to iPod docking stations. People tend to create stronger bonds with devices that permit them to express themselves, Sawhney says. As a result, they like those devices to reflect their personalities—as the two ads at right illustrate. “It’s all based on the human condition,” he says. “What Royal did with color is connect with our need for personalization and identification, and what Apple is doing is the same. There’s really nothing new here, and there’s a strong parallel between these ads.”

Though the products here are separated by 56 years and one digital revolution, the underlying mechanism of the sell is virtually identical: You’ve bought this creative tool, now make it reflect who you really are. Royal’s ad copy asks: “Ever think about your psychological type? Royal has a color for it.” And while Apple’s ad contains virtually no words at all, the Web page for its iPad Smart Cover lures the buyer with the same idea: “iPad already has your content. Now give it your style. Take your pick of 10 bright colors.”

In the end, it’s not even the colors themselves that matter, but the simple presence and choice of them. Whether it’s 1955 or 2011, Sawhney says, “people want to separate themselves from everybody else.”